By Samuel Beckett (Faber & Faber 128pp £20)
'Echo's Bones', as the editor Mark Nixon tells us, was received by Samuel Beckett's editor at Chatto & Windus when he asked Beckett to add to his collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), all ten of which were short indeed, individually and cumulatively. 'Hooray too if you can manage that extra story,' the editor, Charles Prentice, told him. Prentice had already rejected Beckett's first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, in 1932. He was a perceptive and courageous editor, but even his almost surreal politeness did not prevent him from responding to the receipt of 'Echo's Bones' with a horrified candour. 'It is a nightmare ... It gives me the jim-jams ... I am sorry, for I hate to be dense, but I hope I am not altogether insensitive. "Echo's Bones" certainly did land me with a wallop. Do you mind if we leave it out of the book?' Beckett did mind, but he could do little. He took some material from the rejected story and added it to 'Draff', the last story of More Pricks Than Kicks. Prentice welcomed 'the new little bit at the end'. Beckett recycled the title for his first collection of poems in 1935, but Belacqua Shuah, the protagonist of More Pricks Than Kicks, remained dead. One of the slight difficulties in expanding the volume had been the need to revive the grotesque hero and provide him with suitable ruminations on his recent death, the disadvantages of which he was doubtful about anyway, wondering 'if on the whole he had not been a great deal deader before than after his formal departure, so to speak, from among the quick'. That's Belacqua. Never an enthusiast.
Prentice must have recognised in this new manuscript just how dedicated a plagiarist Beckett was, especially when it came to his own work. Echo's Bones draws readily on Dream of Fair to Middling Women and many other works besides, all of which are identified by Nixon in his voluminous annotations. They need to be voluminous - five pages longer than the text itself - for this is a very characteristic modernist text. It's a purée of references. Beckett's friend and mentor James Joyce leaves a heavy impress here. Intertextuality achieved dimensions in Joyce that have never before or since been surpassed. It was the mark of the beast in many modernist literary works - the quotations, the misquotations, the exchanges (and echoes) between the works of the author and the works of the authors he had read (including himself). There is an additional pedantic and subversive sweetness in the work if a source is obscure (in every sense) and can act as a counterpoint to the quoted work of another who is celebrated. This also enhances the switches in the registers of vocabulary and tone, from learned and esoteric to demotic and bawdy. Beckett, like Flann O'Brien, mines the inexhaustible resources of the cliché, much loved and used in the anecdote, the bureaucratic missive and - importantly in all of these writers - the conventions of translation, especially from Irish to English. The result is often a curiously hilarious monotone text, pedantic, bleak, anomic.
Eighty years after it was written, we at last have the text of 'Echo's Bones'. Because it is by Beckett and because of the passage of time, it has retained its interest, although most readers' reactions to it - in its nude state, so to speak -would echo Prentice's. Additionally, I would say, the wonderful annotations are by now a legitimate part of the text. A kind of osmotic transfiguration has occurred: everything that Beckett wrote is echoic and, as in so many modernist works, the reader needs all the help that is on offer if the strange function of their obscurity is to be understood. These are works of lamentation and destruction, works that formally destroy the world, the disappearance of which legitimises their experimentation and also gives to it that tragicomic dimension that we see in Beckett's novels, plays and récits, and also in Ulysses, The Waste Land, Proust, Broch, Mann and countless others. The Ovidian myth of Echo, which is the basis of this particular work, tells how Echo, a living creature, becomes no more than a voice and a pile of bones. Beckett is quite remorseless in drawing the contrast between material hardness and the immateriality of the echo. The contrast is conducted in predominantly sexual terms - between impotence and fertility, hairiness and baldness. It is also figured between a language, English, that expands endlessly into meaninglessness and one, like Irish, that declines and becomes bereft of meaning.
The folk tale (the influence of the revival of Irish on Beckett is understated), the fairy story, the gothic or horror story, the Bildungsroman are all in the echo chamber here. The use of the secondary voice - by now a stale, postmodern device - was always a given in Beckett; it made the very idea of being an author, an original, problematic and absurd. His work has acclimatised us to this troubling possibility, one that has since been so vulgarised that it seems to have lost the threat it poses. Beckett sometimes opens the demotic range of his work like an accordion; in the noise that follows we learn to smile at the pretensions of those arcane words we don't understand or have never heard of, while seeing their comic significance - from the present work a selection would include 'exuviae', 'aspermatic', 'vagitus' and 'rhinal meditation'. But that mocking distance between 'meaning' and 'significance' widens with every variation that Beckett created with such ingenuity.
There is usually in Beckett's work a moral tension that is somehow intensified by his emphasis on delinquents - ne'er-do-wells, tramps, humiliated bodies. Sometimes it is controlled by the dominant figure of a piece - for example, a body immobilised and a consciousness moving. This is the talking-head scenario which is so effective on stage; or the voice on the tape recorder; or the echo; or the educated accent of a class that is degenerating into gibberish. Beckett is, after all, an Anglo-Irish writer of the 20th century, so loss of power and of voice is a communal as well as an individual experience for him. Sometimes in Echo's Bones we can be reminded with a jolt what is missing. There are names of places, but there are no places as such. This work ends in a cemetery, where the hero is a ghost, watching his own grave being dug up, while a submarine (shades of the Easter Rising) waits like Charon's boat off the adjoining coast to bring the dead into the Underworld. The Alba (an amalgam of woman and witch) asks, 'Shall we tarry here until perdition catch us?' The disgruntled passengers say no, the submarine departs 'very cross indeed' and Doyle and Belacqua are abandoned to the cemetery, 'a cockpit of comic panic'. It is gothic, funny and monotonous; we have seen novelistic realism dissolve before our eyes. And the placelessness is the loudest echo of all that is abandoned - the most obvious 'emblem', a cemetery. It seems one is doomed to parody oneself.
In the annotations there is one clear error: Douglas Hyde is not the author of Bards of the Gael and Gall; George Sigerson is. Also, I think the presence of Rousseau's Confessions is understated, especially when one thinks of his 'strangury' (difficulty in urinating), his exile, his imagined paradise in the Ile de Saint-Pierre, his 'Armenian' outfit and his final descent into quite understandable paranoia. But this is to cringe before Mark Nixon's learning and grace. It is good to have this work, not of genius, but by a genius, finally.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Seamus Deane, writer and emeritus professor, now lives in retirement in Dublin.