Samuel Beckett’s ‘Echo’s Bones’ and too many annotations
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.