Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

How It Is, Beckett’s sixth novel and his fourth written originally in French, continues to develop his central theme of the meaninglessness of existence. Its initial publication in 1961, however, seemed to evidence some literary meaning since it, in part, occasioned the awarding of the International Publishers Prize to the author in that same year. The ten-thousand-dollar prize, which Beckett shared with Jorge Luis Borges, was for the body of his work, but How It Is was cited particularly, along with the novels Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958).

Beckett is perhaps even better known as a dramatist, as a leading member of the Theater of the Absurd. In plays such as En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) and Fin de partie (1957; Endgame, 1958), the denuded settings and laconic characters seem to be leading the drama toward silence. Certain critics insist that some hope can be found behind Beckett’s black despair. Yet they are inevitably forced to use tenuous arguments—for example, that the very act of writing a novel or play is a refutation of total nihilism.

Throughout Beckett’s career, stream of consciousness has been his habitual literary form. In the 1930’s, he took dictation from a fellow Dubliner, the nearly blind James Joyce, and copied out parts of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Though the stream-of-consciousness technique may have derived from Joyce, Beckett’s style is unmistakably his own. In How It Is, he takes Macbeth’s observation that life “is a tale told by an idiot...signifying nothing” to its ultimate, disturbing conclusion.