How It Is by Samuel Beckett

Friday, August 1, 2014 § 0

How It Is: An Avant Garde Novel(ist)ic Text Written in Unpunctuated Prose

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

How It Is (1964) by Samuel Beckett is an innovative novel written in unpunctuated prose that tells the story of how the narrator exists before Pim, during Pim, and after Pim, surviving with a sack of tins which may be keeping him alive during the occupation of Paris in the years of the second World War. This is the minimalist narrative strategy that Samuel Beckett is known for in his plays, and when he developed his novel writing techniques with the use of unpunctuated prose he went to the forefront of the new avant garde with an Existentialist style based on the philosophical concept of existence. The minimal existence of the narrator is contrasted with the sophistication of his omniscience which enables him to tune into a literary network for survival during the events of World War II. Innovative novels written in unpunctuated prose anticipate a new poetic novel where the objective prose descriptions of the Nouveau Roman have become more intuitive, more creative in sentence structure, and more subjective in expressing the contents of the unconscious mind. Samuel Beckett was an Irishman living in Paris and writing in French, where he associated with the Nouveau Roman novelists, and along with fellow Irishman James Joyce, developed a more abstract approach to the novel. How It Is (1964) is an innovative novel written in unpunctuated prose that brings out the complexity of meaning with a freer syntax, a style that artists Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró used for their journal writing experiments in prose.

how it is I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it
                                                                How It Is
                                                                Samuel Beckett

The structure of the three part novel is revealed in this unpunctuated sentence while the reader may ask the question Who is Pim?, and what type of internal monologue is the narrator listening to? The name Pim is reminiscent of the collaborative text Pin and the Story of Pin (1986) by Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann, so that the identity of Pim may be a subtle reference to the Dadaist text. Perhaps the narrator of How It Is (1964) is being guided to safety by the Dadaists, and he may be listening to a communications network that produces an awareness of what is going on.

here then part one how it was before Pim we follow I quote the natural order more or less my life last state last version what remains bits and scraps I hear it my life natural order more or less I learn it I quote a given moment long past vast stretch of time on from there that moment and following not all a selection natural order vast tracts of time
                                                               How It Is
                                                               Samuel Beckett

The intertextuality that is introduced here implies that the text is addressed to a reader, perhaps a fellow novelist, who has written about a vast stretch of time, which reminds me of my own first novel. Following the trend of the artists who were writing poetry and journals in unpunctuated prose, led by Jean Arp in the Cloud Pump (1920), Pablo Picasso in The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and other poems (2004), Joan Miró in his Selected Writings and Interviews (1992), and Anaïs Nin whose journals The Diary of Anaïs Nin (1966) describes the years 1931 to 1977, inspiring the artists of the 20th Century who kept poetic journals written in unpunctuated prose.

my head where is my head it rests on the table my hand trembles on the table she sees I am not sleeping the wind blows tempestuous the little clouds drive before it the table glides from light to darkness darkness to light
                                                              How It Is
                                                              Samuel Beckett

The cinematic effect of this passage reminds me of time lapse photographic images which could produce a poetic film with the visible passage of time conveyed in the changing of light to darkness, and the free syntax of the unpunctuated prose creates a transition from objective description to the poetic usage of the art inspired writing, that brings the novel to the sophistication of modern art.

it dies and I see a crocus in a pot in an area in a basement a saffron the sun creeps up the wall a hand keeps it in the sun this yellow flower with a string I see the hand long image hours long the sun goes the pot goes down lights on the ground the hand goes the wall goes
                                                                How It Is
                                                                Samuel Beckett 

The idea of death occurs in a dying age with the symbolism of a flower representing memories of someone, and as the sun creeps up the wall it creates an intense image for the memory banks focused on a yellow flower as the hand works at horticulture, while the photogenic day transforms into nightfall with the passing of time from a heroic age looking ahead to another heroic age, or an abject age looking ahead to a future abject age.

Raymond Federman worked as Samuel Beckett's secretary in Paris, similar to the role Samuel Beckett played with James Joyce, and  we might introduce the esthetic theories of abstract painting here which become relevant in the context of literary abstraction.

Standing in front of these paintings it is the form, the composition, the colors that move us and stay with us rather than the represented subject and the meaning of that subject, if there is a subject. 

This is even more so when looking at an abstract painting. It is the geometry, the colors or lack of colors that touches us since there is no real subject, no story, no melodrama in the painting and therefore no reference to the real world.
                                                           The Imagery Museum
                                                           of Samuel Beckett
                                                           Raymond Federman

The esthetic theories of abstract painting can be applied to the techniques of the novel writing with the use of visual paragraph form, with the composition of the page into contrasting sections of type in an equilibrium with the white space of the page, and with the use of colored ink for semiotic images. I have followed this trend of abstract painting in my novels The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, and my novel-in-progress Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography. 
from The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending by David Detrich
Raymond Federman gave a lecture at the Kunsthalle in Vienna on the occasion of a Samuel Beckett and Bruce Nauman exhibition in February, 2000, where he implies that there is no real subject, no story, no melodrama in abstract painting. The innovative novel reflects this lack of story in favor of a novel without a subject, where the introspective thoughts of the narrator make up the entirety of the novel. This is the turning away from objective description with dialogue which creates a drama, towards the contents of the unconscious mind, which may be composed of random thoughts, literary chat, meditations from the scene of writing where the narrator sits before the window creating a specific genre, an artist's journal, a time traveler's novel, a spatial design for fiction, an ultramodern novel written in minimal squares. 

sometimes in this position a fine image fine I mean in movement and color blue and white of clouds in the wind sometimes some days this time as it happens this day in the mud a fine image I'll describe it it will be described then go right leg right arm push pull towards Pim he does not exist
                                                                  How It Is
                                                                  Samuel Beckett

The freer syntax of unpunctuated prose has produced a masterwork of innovative fiction with How It Is (1984) by Samuel Beckett, a novelist who has also written Nohow On (1989), a collection of mini-novels which includes Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho. These stories have developed the abstract style envisioned by Raymond Federman, and refined by Samuel Beckett into minimal characterizations illustrating the postmodern trend of narration as a way of describing an abstract painterly or cinematic image in short sentences. This simpler abstract style verges on dramatic writing, on second generation Surrealism, and on phenomenological details in philosophical writing which may have evolved from his early interest in Existentialism. 

Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, and for those who seek a more abstract novel that follows avant garde trends in introspective writing How It Is (1964) represents the esthetic ideal of artistic sophistication brought to the genre of innovative fiction, where cinematic techniques reveal a time lapse chronology of events which create a filmic or painterly image, so that the innovative novel has become a work of modern art.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He edits Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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