Culture Shock: Let’s not make Samuel Beckett the Tupac of literature
Should Faber have published ‘Echo’s Bones’, a ‘new’ story? As the director Robert Scanlan puts it, there is more ‘Beckett’ floating about in unpublished autographs and typescripts than there is published Beckett in print
Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
It is obvious that Samuel Beckett’s works are among the most important of the 20th century. But what exactly do we mean by “Beckett’s works”? With no great contemporary writer is the answer to that apparently simple question so complicated. A “new” Beckett story, Echo’s Bones, has recently been published by Faber & Faber, 25 years after his death. In a letter to this paper the wonderful Beckett scholar (and distinguished cardiologist) Eoin O’Brien strongly objected to the decision to publish a story written in 1933 as an addendum to Beckett’s first collection, More Pricks Than Kicks. The publisher who asked for the additional story, Charles Prentice, rejected Echo’s Bones as a “nightmare”, and it never saw the light of day. O’Brien argued that it should have remained in the obscurity of the two university libraries that hold typescripts.
O’Brien was a friend of Beckett, who trusted him with the decision on whether and when to publish another “lost” manuscript, Beckett’s first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women. O’Brien’s view that “the publication of Echo’s Bones would . . . make its author shudder” deserves to be taken seriously. He argues that “Beckett never sought to have the rejected additional chapter included in More Pricks than Kicks on the occasions when that book was several times reprinted or published elsewhere. In my many discussions with Beckett on the publication of Dream of Fair to Middling Women . . . which he agreed should be published ‘some little time’ after his death, he never ever mentioned Echo’s Bones as a work in need of similar consideration.” In O’Brien’s view Echo’s Bones has no aesthetic merit and should not have been published.
We’ve been here before. In 1994 two of Beckett’s most important friends, his American publisher Barney Rosset and his French publisher and literary executor, Jerome Lindon, had an almighty row about Rosset’s decision to publish Beckett’s first play, Eleuthéria, written in 1947, two years before Waiting for Godot, but never staged. Lindon, acting as he saw it in defence of Beckett’s reputation, threatened to sue not just Rosset but also bookshops and distributors and the New York Theatre Workshop, which planned a staged reading. Lindon made the same judgment on Eléutheria that O’Brien makes on Echo’s Bones: that it was a failure best forgotten. In this case, however, Lindon reluctantly withdrew his threats, accepting that Beckett would have been distraught at such a public row between two of his closest collaborators.
At the time many of the scholars who had known Beckett agreed with Lindon and criticised Rosset for publishing Eleuthéria. Among them was the Harvard professor and distinguished Beckett director and dramaturge Robert Scanlan. But in an intriguing review of Echo’s Bones Scanlan now admits to much greater ambivalence about the whole subject: “At my last meeting with Beckett, a few months before his death, Beckett said wearily to me ‘It will be impossible to control it,’ and I understood him to be letting me, and others (especially his nephew, Edward, who now governs the estate) off the hook a bit about policing his work after his death as strictly as he himself had done while alive. My first real test was over Eleuthéria, and many of us ‘Becketeers’ remain of two minds about the play’s published existence. I sided with Lindon at the time. Edward Beckett has steadfastly resisted any and all requests to stage the play. When he relents, I hope I get the honour of directing the premiere. I have strong ideas about how to do it. How’s that for ambivalence?”
And it may be that ambivalence is the correct, if unsatisfactory, answer. For Beckett was deeply ambivalent himself. There is a problem with taking his wishes at any given point as definitive. It has to be recalled that he tended to dismiss the value of almost everything he wrote. As he put it in a letter to Rosset in 1954, “It’s hard to go on with everything loathed and repudiated as soon as formulated, and in the act of formulation, and before formulation.” He resisted, then agreed to, Lindon’s pressure to publish his first French novel, Mercier and Camier. He resisted all pressure to republish More Pricks Than Kicks, then gave in. He didn’t want Dream of Fair to Middling Women published at all – until he found in O’Brien someone he could trust with it. The fact that, as O’Brien rightly says, Beckett never sought to have Echo’s Bones published after 1933 does not mean that he singled it out for loathing. He refers in his letters to his work in general as “shit” or “vomit”.
The fact is that both Echo’s Bones (which I think has a lot more merit than O’Brien thinks it does) and Eleuthéria were intended at one stage to be made public – which is as much as can be said for a great deal of his accepted canon. The real problem is that there is much that Beckett wrote that never even got to this stage – stuff he never sent out to editors but didn’t destroy either. As Scanlan puts it “there is more ‘Beckett’ floating about in unpublished autographs and typescripts than there is published Beckett in print.” The real fight may not be over reasonably finished works such as Echo’s Bones but over the struggle to prevent Beckett becoming the literary equivalent of Elvis or Tupac, still making “new” records decades after their deaths.