Tag Archives: Against the Wordle

Too Much Annotations and Samuel Beckett’s ‘Echo’s Bones’

I love annotations, but occasionally I will find a text that makes me wonder whether the annotator has marked up a novel to a gratuitous extent. Beckett’s short story Echo’s Bones (2014) was one such text.

Echo’s Bones was initially intended to be the last instalment in his short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and was written at the request of its publisher, Charles Prentice, believing the book would be improved by an additional narrative. After reading Echo’s Bones, Prentice reconsidered and wrote an apologetic letter to Beckett saying that the sales of Pricks would be much reduced by the addition of Echo’s Bones and that Pricks should contain only the original ten stories. Echo’s Bones had not been published until last year, in a handsome hardback with a twenty-two page introduction and sixty-eight pages of notes by Mark Nixon. This quantity of extraneous material for a fifty-one page story is presumably to justify the charging of thirty-five quid for the thing.

The biggest problem I have with annotations isn’t necessarily their tendency towards over-explication, but dealing with them as a mechanic of the codex, as they require you to flick back and forth between the text itself to somewhere in the back pages. Rather than having footnotes, the text is uninterrupted, requiring one to remember what the next note is, turning the process of reading into waiting for a particular phrase, the signal to flip to the back.

One critic of another posthumously published Beckett work, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992) wrote that in order to contend it, one would need ‘some French and German, a resident exegete of Dante, a good encyclopaedia, OED, the patience of Job and your wits about you.’ One of Beckett’s biographers, James Knowlson rightly adds that you’d probably need Italian, Spanish and Latin too. A failure to credit the intelligence or curiosity of the reader is, not to mention the excessive pricing, is my issue with Echo’s Bones. Very little in the way of intertext escapes Nixon’s excessive annotation. A line that references Hamlet merits the note that Joyce also references this line in Ulysses (1922), a use of the word ‘dunderhead’ necessitates that the fact that Laurence Sterne also uses the word in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman (1767) (a novel that Beckett admired, but was also irritated by, incidentally) as does the fact that ‘uterotaph’ is a variation (a delineation liberally interpreted on Nixon’s part) on one of Beckett’s favourite words. I understand the need to map each of Beckett’s references to Shakespeare, but I think that I would have appreciated a modest recommendations for further reading section instead, one that lists the complete works of Augustine, Shakespeare, Montague, Chaucer, Burton, Johnson, Homer, etc, etc, etc.

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Samuel Beckett’s ‘More Pricks Than Kicks,’ and James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

To compare James Joyce and Samuel Beckett would be nothing new for a critic. When Eimear McBride recommended a familiarity with early-twentieth century Irish modernism in order to grasp her 2013 novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, it was fairly obvious who she was talking about.

Beckett met Joyce in Paris and helped him to translate the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of Finnegans Wake into French. Joyce also dictated some sections of the novel to him, necessitated by Joyce’s failing eyesight. While this process was ongoing, there was a knock at the door. Joyce called for whoever it was to come in and proceeded to have a conversation with them, all of which Beckett dutifully typed. Joyce was confused by its presence in the proofs when Beckett read them back, but was amused enough to keep it in the final version. As such Beckett proved himself handy not only as a stenographer, but a co-writer.

John Banville points out that this friendship had its price. Not only did Beckett take to holding a cigarette in the same way as his mentor, but he also emulated his sartorial quirks and wore shoes that were too narrow for his feet. There is a fine line between hero worship and masochism. Furthermore, Beckett’s early writing is stultified by a Joycean tenor, in his shorter fiction from his early career, he too often opts for clattering neologisms and wry allusiveness, rather than the morbid tautologies and minimalism that he became known for.

When reading his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks, I was struck by the comparisons that could be made between Beckett’s protagonist Belacqua Shuah and Joyce’s analogue in his own fiction, Stephen Dedalus. Both are notable for their solipsism, terrible attitudes towards women and pseudo-intellectual faffing. However, I found a far more engaging link towards the end of the short story ‘A Wet Night,’ in which one can see Beckett wryly negotiating Joyce’s hallowed ground. ‘A Wet Night’ parodically re-iterates the conclusion to Joyce’s legendary final paragraphs in ‘The Dead.’ I’ll include it here because it’s out of copyright and always worth reading:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

‘A Wet Night,’ shares a setting with ‘The Dead.’ Both take place at Christmas dinner parties and feature a number of Dublin socialites. The conversation at both is insipid, but Beckett’s lacks all the warmth and nostalgia for Dublin hospitality that Joyce probably felt, writing it as he did in Trieste. While Gabriel Conroy leaves Usher Quay in high spirits, feeling himself to be passionately in love with his wife Gretta, Belacqua leaves his dinner party drunk and bereft:

“But the wind had dropped, as it so often does in Dublin when all the respectable men and women whom it delights to annoy have gone to bed, and the rain fell in a uniform, untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.”

I really enjoy the bathos of this passage. It teases the reader with its lyrical realism and its suggestion of universality, revealed in the rhythm of its slow, gently undulating sentences. It then subverts itself with a banal academic tone, all turning on the word ‘notably’ and the repetition of the word ‘uniform,’ as if the narrator had something more important to do than to vary their word choice.

In his alcohol-induced fugue, Belacqua throws away a new pair of shoes and we are told that his toes enjoy their newfound freedom which they are ‘rejoicing’ in. I hope it is not labouring the point to propose this as a pun that confirms the rain’s genealogy.