And so to the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones, but the critical termites have proven themselves to be in flourishing health once more. ‘Sterile and spasmodic’ one whines, whilst another suggests through lazy pastiche that it’s so full of the improbable and pessimistic as to be better left for dead. Almost all seem to begin by sympathising with the publisher Charles Prentice, who upon reading Echo’s Bones for the first time rejected it so strongly that afterwards he felt an irresistible pity and apologetic deference towards its poor author. ‘I am sitting on the ground, and ashes are on my head. Please write kindly.’
Samuel Beckett, Echo’s Bones. Faber & Faber, 2014
Echo’s Bones is not an easy read, but how surprising can this be of a writer for whom More Pricks Than Kicks is described as ‘a concession to the marketplace?’ So often the peculiar pleasure taken in the language is the source of humour rather than mere incomprehensibility. Take for instance this subtle classic of religious comedy: ‘While my medical advisers assure me that I lack the powers of procreation, my chaplains are good enough to condone this incapacity as one that is natural, absolute, perpetual and antecedent.’ For every ‘pranic bleb’ you can quote, there seem to be just as many gags and amusing turns of phrase (but really, what is so wrong with ‘pranic bleb’?) And for what you can’t understand, it may, horror of horrors, be incumbent on you to suffer the indignity of consulting footnotes.
‘The wild unfathomable energy of the population’, regarded by Prentice as a defect, is on the contrary one of the more enjoyable qualities of this early work. Lord Gall is the classic Beckettian tyrant, a proto Pozzo, but so ludicrous in both deportment and dress he trumps them all. He is introduced after his botched long putt strikes the hero Belacqua on the coccyx, leaving the victim ‘swooning for joy.’ After all, ‘Never had he experienced such a tingling sensation, it was like having one’s bottom skate rolled with knuckle-dusters.’ Gall, the blundering, terrifying tree dwelling aristocrat, is the highlight of the piece, with his tarboosh, his alcoholism and his ostrich Strauss. You get the feeling Beckett threw all of his hatred for the eccentricities and monstrosities of privilege into this portrayal.
Murphy and Watt might be numbered among Beckett’s better failures, but Echo’s Bones is surely of interest to anyone who wants to read a work that manages the task of learned wit far better than many efforts in more recent times. Will it ever be possible to silence the critical gall, who in response to Belacqua’s verbal extravagance (‘diadems of lakes’) shouts ‘Cut out the style … how often must I tell you?’