When More Pricks Than Kicks finally appeared in the spring of 1934, sales were so disappointing that it is hard to see how anything, even the nightmarish farrago of “Echo’s Bones,” could have depressed them any further. Reviews ranged from the cautious (“a definite fresh talent at work,” observed the TLS, “though it is a talent not yet quite sure of itself”) to the outright hostile (“very strange and puzzling” was the Morning Herald’s verdict; the reviewer for the Morning Post concurred: “the meaning of More Pricks Than Kicks completely eludes me”).
The inclusion of “Echo’s Bones” would have done little to dispel the bafflement of these early readers. Even today, with Beckett’s reputation secure and a reading public accustomed to the high jinks of postmodernist literature, this story presents formidable challenges. The ideal reader would need to come armed with the same attributes listed by one reviewer of Dream of Fair to Middling Women when it finally appeared in 1992: “to cope with this book you will need some French and German, a resident exegete of Dante, a good encyclopedia, OED, the patience of Job and your wits about you.” Understanding is not everything, of course; some readers will revel in the anarchic energy of the language, others may delight in the sheer comic absurdity of the plot (as Brendan Behan wryly observed: “I don’t understand what Samuel Beckett’s works are about. But I don’t understand what a swim in the ocean is about. I just love the flow of the water over my body”). For many more readers, however, “Echo’s Bones” is unlikely to be a pleasurable reading experience, presenting an impenetrable sheen of language detached from the traditional conventions of plot and character.
For all his qualities as an editor, Charles Prentice, the first reader of “Echo’s Bones,” was not that “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” dreamed of by James Joyce; one ready to pick apart the tangled skein of quotations and allusions that body out, as it were, the merest bones of a story. Fortunately for us, the editor of the present volume, Mark Nixon, is such a reader. If the annotations to “Echo’s Bones” take up more pages than the text itself, this is more a testament to the sheer mass of intertextual allusions and straight out “borrowings” than to any hint of heavy-handed scholarship.
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