Book Review: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Samuel Beckett
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Coincidences are no more than that, though I am very well aware of the research on them. (Freud once stated that  there were no such things as accidents, but I believe coincidences to be a lesser, less conscious form of accident. In the latter, the subconscious is directing you towards what might seem to be a accident but is actually rooted in one’s memory, suppressed or on the surface. Coincidence, on the other hand, is simply the awareness of a multiplication of events, of which one wasn’t completely cognizant or prepared for beforehand.)

So anyway, I attended an intense two-week workshop on education-on assessments and feedback and good old Bloom’s taxonomy. However, much of it was rooted in the teachings of Augustine–and much of the feedback I received  referenced Dante.

Before the workshop, however, I had bought a book, Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett. I knew it was something I would need to concentrate on–a 52 page short-story, accompanied by 58 pages of annotations, and complete with an introduction,  copies of the original typescript, letters from Beckett’s publishers, and a bibliography. This was not simply reading a short story, but sort an academic adventure. The type of diversion I hadn’t had in a while.

Cover of Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Cover of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

And so I waited until my Augustinian-laced workshop was over.

And then I began reading.  After I got  through the introduction and  into the story I began to smile. It was Augustine all over again with a large dollop of Dante.  In the first three pages alone there are five allusions to Augustine and four allusions to the Divine Comedy. And the main character, Belacqua, is given the nickname, Adeodatus–the name of Augustine’s illegitimate son.

So why all this hubbub about a short story that was written more than eighty years ago?  Well, Beckett had written a collection of interrelated short stories entitled More Pricks than Kicks.  Right before publication, however,  his publisher asked if Beckett would add a final story to the collection, to fatten it up, so to speak.

Beckett agreed, except there was one problem.  All the characters in the collection were now dead.  And so Beckett wrote “Echo’s Bones,”  which told the story of the dead Belacqua’s return to life in his short interim between death and eternity.  The publisher rejected the story, stating that it was too dark, too odd, and that it would make readers shudder.  And so More Pricks than Kicks was published as it was originally intended, and “Echo’s Bones” was assigned to the crypt of oblivion.  Until now.

The title refers to the mythological figure Echo, who tragically fell in love with Narcissus. (He was never a good catch for any woman. Too much competition with himself alone!)  Anyway, when she died, all that was left were her bones and her voice. Thus, we have “Echo’s Bones.”  If the editors had only known how perfectly the story’s title would foretell the nature of Beckett’s future work: a work of spotlighted voices–often disembodied (Krapp’s Last Tape), often body-less (HappyDays), and often flowing in a rushing stream (Ponzo’s soliloquy in Godot).

The plot is secondary to the wordplay, the erudition, the humor, and Beckett’s world view. Quickly: the dead Belacqua suddenly finds himself on a fence in a empty Beckettian landscape. A woman arrives and brings him to Lord Gall, a giant of a man with a paradisaical estate which he will lose because he is sterile and lacks a male heir. He convinces Belacqua  to bed his wife, in hope of an heir, but–in a twist of telescoped time–the woman gives birth to a daughter.  The story concludes with Belacqua conversing with his own grave digger (from an earlier story) and searching his own coffin for his body. The story ends with a familiar phrase in Beckett’s work and letters: “So it goes in the world.”  These are the last words of “Echo’s Bones,” but they are also the last words of “Draff,” the final story in the version of More Pricks than Kicks that was ultimately published.  A phrase that Beckett had picked up from the Brothers Grimm story “How the Cat and the Mouse Set up House,” it is a phrase that encapsulates Beckett’s life view and one that he used often even in his personal correspondence.

While I respect and love Beckett’s drama, I particularly enjoy his early fiction. Still under the influence of Joyce, Beckett, at this time, was  full of his verbal powers, delighting in the wordplay, and confident in his free association. It is always, for me, a treat to read.

 

 

Waiting for Godot: Crying in Beckett

A while back, I had posted about a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that I ‘d seen at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. In it, I quoted my favorite lines from the play:

HAMM: (letting go his toque) What’s he doing?

(Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, look into it. Pause.)
CLOV: He’s crying. (He closes lid, straightens up.)
HAMM: Then he’s living.

The character Hamm has made the immediate inference that if his father is crying, then he is alive. And we, by extension, apply it to the human condition. I remembered this line–and the act of crying– this week when teaching Waiting for Godot. (Actually, the crying seemed more appropriate than ever for someone trying to teach Godot to 18-year old boys during their last week of school when the temperatures are in the mid-70s and the sun is bright! Hah!)

Early in the play, Estragon and Vladimir point out the tree where they are supposed to wait for Godot. (It is the only piece of scenery. The scene description reads simply: A country road. A tree. )

godot tree

Mark Bedard (Vladimir) and Mark Anderson Phillips (Estragon) in Samuel Beckett s ‘Waiting for Godot,’ at Marin Theatre Company. photo 2013 by Kevin Berne

Estragon: [desparingly] Ah! [pause] You’re sure it was here?

Vladimir: What?

Estragon: That we were to wait.

Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others?

Estragon: What is it?

Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.

Estragon: Where are the leaves?

Vladimir: It must be dead.

Estragon: No more weeping.

This is the exact inverse of the lines from Endgame. In Endgame, the syllogism is that if you are crying then you are alive. In Waiting for Godot, the syllogism is that if you are dead, then there is no more crying. More or less the same thing.

Later on, as Vladimir and Estragon rebuke Pozzo for his treatment of his slave/servant, Lucky, there is more conversation about crying:

[Lucky weeps]

Estragon: He’s crying!

Pozzo: Old dogs have more dignity! [He proffers his handkerchief to Estragon.] Comfort him, since you pity him. [Estragon hesitates.] Come on. [Estragon takes the handkerchief.] Wipe away his tears, he’ll feel less forsaken.

[Estragon hesitates]

Vladimir: Here give it to me, I’ll do it.
[Estragon refuses to give the handkerchief. Childish gestures.]

Estragon and Vladimir with Lucky

Estragon and Vladimir with Lucky from samuel-beckett.net

Pozzo: Make haste before he stops. [Estragon approaches Lucky and makes to wipe his eyes. Lucky kicks him violently in the shin. Estragon drops the handkerchief, recoils, staggers about the stage, howling with pain.] Hanky!
[Lucky puts down bag and basket, picks up handkerchief and gives it to Pozzo, goes back to his place, picks up bag and basket.]

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What are we to make of that? What is the significance of Lucky’s crying? Of Estragon and Vladimir’s desire to comfort him? Of Lucky’s lashing out at his comforter? And of his immediate subservience to his persecutor.

There is, of course, much more going on here, but the small emphasis on tears should be noted. Earlier Beckett had equated crying with living. Are we simply to be reminded that Lucky is a living, human being, and leave it at that? (We knew that anyway.)

Or perhaps we are to examine the difficult symbiosis between the comforter and the comforted? The helper and the helped? The cry of pain and those who hear and those who refuse to hear?

What is our responsibility to those who are “crying”? To those who are inconsolable? Good questions, all. And ones that we should take the time to think about every so often.