More Chicks and Dicks

beckett
Goppeldangers: Samuel Beckett by Nell Frizell

by Joanna Walsh

Echo’s Bones,
by Samuel Beckett,
Faber & Faber, 128 pp.

The first time I read More Pricks Than Kicks I was assailed by terrible cramps that rippled up and down the front of my torso until I stopped reading. It seemed appropriate. Echo’s Bones is a long short story originally intended as the ‘recessional’ to More Pricks Than Kicks, Beckett’s 1934 collection of stories about Belacqua – Dubliner, eternal student, abject sufferer from his own body: goitre, hammer toe, sexual dysfunction and moral turpitude. Although Beckett had to be persuaded to write the story in order to flesh out the collection, Echo’s Bones gave Shatton & Windup [1] “the jim-jams” and it was rejected. Now here it is, resurrected and larger-than-life, bulked-out by an introduction and notes longer than the text itself.

The beautiful new Faber edition (taking notes, my pencil sunk into what must truly be the Andrex of paper stock) is annotated almost out of existence, making the task of reading nearly as great a labour as digging up your own coffin, as Belacqua (now deceased), finds.

There is much to annotate. In a letter to Thomas McGreevy, in 1933, Beckett says Echo’s Bones was a “story into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of.” Beckett started his career, under the influence of Joyce, by saying everything, and ended up by saying nothing: the less he wrote, the more he was capable of meaning. In a late interview with James Knowlson, Beckett said, “I realised that James Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding. ”Cut out the style.” as Lord Gall advises Belacqua, several times.

In an essay on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Beckett said of his mentor, “his writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” In Echo’s Bones, Beckett addresses, creatively, the anxiety of what relations words can have with what is. If More Pricks than Kicks is set in a Grosz world of the solidly physical, with its cast of scholars and whores (there are no other women: “Toutes êtes, serez ou futes, De fait ou de volonté putes,” Chas quotes, in A Wet Night) in Echo’s Bones, though set in the afterlife, flesh is still pervasive. As when, in More Pricks Than Kicks, Beckett lovingly and extensively paraphrases Belacqua’s vomiting on a policeman’s shoes, or taking a shit in the street, Beckett’s verbal kickshaws bloom when skirting taboo physicality (sex, impotence, golf balls lodged up the arse…).

More Pricks Than Kicks had few contemporary readers, and after the rejection of his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Beckett may have felt he was mostly playing with himself: a kind of Onanisme seul et à deux (Echo’s Bones contains a number of references to Pierre Garnier’s 1883 work on masturbation).

But Echo’s Bones cannot be read alone. A massive in-joke for anyone who’s read More Pricks Than Kicks, the slim volume’s best concordance is not the notes that decipher the text’s extensive references, but the preceding collection; don’t attempt Echo’s Bones without it. This twinnedness with the writer’s own texts, as with those of others, is a clue to the story’s importance. In Proust (1930) Beckett had already written of “that most necessary and wholesome plagiarism, the plagiarism of oneself”.

Echo’s Bones most resembles Beckett’s later work in its use of catechism, dialogue, and jokes, which are so often a dialogue for one person who both asks and answers (knock knock, who’s there? – it’s not for nothing they call this two-handled beast the one-liner). Belacqua dialogues, successively, with Zaborovna Privet, Lord Gall and Doyle, foreshadowing Beckett’s later double-acts, Didi n’ Gogo, Hamm n’ Clov.

But are Beckett’s jokes funny? More Pricks Than Kicks, Edwin Muir tellingly wrote in 1934, “degenerates into excellent blarney.”; it is full of what Arthur Miller called Beckett’s “vaudeville exuberance” that hits you over the head with its comic intent. Echo’s Bones is, the authorial voice states, “a cockpit of comic confusion,” which is probably the least comic way of persuading the reader that this is so. Beckett’s ‘tell not show’ method of describing a joke, rather than delivering it, is typical of the better-failed jokes of Beckett’s later work, which call into question not only how we communicate, but what relation words can have to reality, how we use words in a clumsy attempt to control or to sidestep the risqué businesses of the flesh.

ESTRAGON:

You know the story of the Englishman in the brothel?

VLADIMIR:

ESTRAGON:

Tell it to me.

VLADIMIR:

Ah stop it!

ESTRAGON:

An Englishman having drunk a little more than usual proceeds to a brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants a fair one, a dark one or a red-haired one. Go on.

VLADIMIR:

STOP IT!

Exit Vladimir hurriedly. (He doesn’t finish the joke.)

More Pricks Than Kicks was described by Modernist scholar Jean-Michel Rabaté as “Beckett avant Beckett”, the author himself divided in two: both comic and straight man. If a joke is a linguistic struggle between the banal and the overcomplicated, if a joke depends on the possibility of misreading, then early Beckett is the straight man, waiting to be deadpanned by his later self. If this “recessional” story is the punchline to More Pricks Than Kicks, it was such a long time in coming that it’s as much a joke on dead Beckett as it is on dead Belacqua.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses the nymph Echo is the victim of her outsize vocabulary, and is punished for verbosity by having her speech restricted to quotations, before her flesh withers entirely away: “her bones were turned to stone It is sound that lives in her.” The echoes of Ovid’s Echo are not simple repetition, but change meaning through replay: “Why do you fly from me?” asks Narcissus. “Fly from me!” Echo helplessly repeats.

In Echo’s Bones, the joke is that words could ever be anywhere near made flesh. In the pile-up of quotation and reference, the bones of Beckett’s later work are beginning to be exposed. Echo’s Bones is Beckett sitting on the fence, where Belacqua finds himself at the beginning of the book, shown on the Faber edition’s tasteful grey-jacket as a scribble of a broken railing dividing this world and the next. Setting the story in a fleshless afterlife, words are allowed to become rags fluttering from a skeleton of meaning. It’s the best place for them.


Note:

[1] Famously, Beckett’s name for his publisher, Chatto & Windus.

About the Author:

jw_authorportrait

Joanna Walsh is a writer and illustrator. Her work has been published by Granta, Tate, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, The White Review, The European Short Story Network, Narrative Magazine and others. Her story collection, Fractals, is published by 3:AM Press.