I love annotations. They give me information on a text that would normally require archive digging or reading a doorstopper of a biography (not that that’s ever a chore) and they give me a good idea of the next book that I should be consulting if I want to find out more, in order to make more elaborate and niche connections between my primary and secondary readings. More importantly, they help me to feel better about myself. However, occasionally I will find a text that makes me wonder as to whether the annotator has marked up a novel to a gratuitous extent. Beckett’s heretofore unpublished short story Echo’s Bones(2014) was one such text.
Echo’s Bones was initially intended to be the last installment in the short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and was written at the request of its publisher, Charles Prentice, believing the book would be improved by an additional narrative. After reading Echo’s Bones, Prentice reconsidered and wrote an apologetic letter to Beckett saying that the sales of Pricks would be much reduced by the addition of Echo’s Bones and that Pricks should contain only the original ten stories. Echo’s Bones had not been published until last year, in a handsome hardback with a twenty-two page introduction and sixty-eight pages of notes by Mark Nixon. This quantity of extraneous material for a fifty-one page story is presumably to justify the charging of thirty-five quid for the thing.
Again, I love annotations. Don Gifford’s and Richard Seidman’s magisterialUlysses Annotated is just a little shorter than the novel it purports to document but the level of detail it provides about this most referential of texts (with line references, take note, Nixon) makes it a great reference point and an impromptu encyclopaedia of Irish history, if one of those isn’t to hand. Furthermore, I doubt that if I ever get around to reading Finnegans Wake (1939) that I would do so without Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake. Rather in keeping with the anarchic nature of its source material, it does not systematise its mode of references, but instead mimics the layout of the words as they appear on the page of the Wake, allowing at least partially, one to lay one of these pages over one of those of the Wake. It’s symmetrical and satisfying.
I also love the Arden editions of Shakespeare. My copy of Hamlet has one hundred and fifty pages of an introduction, five appendices and only half of any given page is given over to the play (approximately forty lines of text, sometimes only two), the rest is given over solely to explanatory notes. I sold my Complete Oxford Shakespeare with in the hope of one day acquiring the complete Arden library of Shakespeare editions, they’re just great.
The biggest problem annotations have are not necessarily their tendency towards over-explication, but merely dealing with their mechanics, as they necessitate flicking back and forth from the text itself to somewhere in the back pages. Not every book merits another book to act as mediator between reader and text, as Joyce might, but this means that most authors lack the advantage of allowing for one to have two books open on the relevant page at once, allowing for easy switching between the two. Echo’s Bones makes it difficult. Rather than having footnotes to signal that additional information has been supplied, the text is uninterrupted, requiring one to remain attuned to what the next note is, turning the process of reading into waiting for a particular phrase, the signal to flip to the back.
One critic of another posthumously published Beckett work, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992) wrote that in order to contend it, one would need “some French and German, a resident exegete of Dante, a good encyclopaedia, OED, the patience of Job and your wits about you.” One of Beckett’s biographers, James Knowlson rightly adds that you’d probably need Italian, Spanish and Latin too. A failure to credit the intelligence or curiosity of the reader is, not to mention the excessive pricing, is my issue with Echo’s Bones. Very little in the way of intertext escapes Nixon’s excessive annotation. A line that references Hamlet merits the note that Joyce also references this line in Ulysses (1922), a use of the word ‘dunderhead’ necessitates that the fact that Laurence Sterne also uses the word in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman (1767) (a novel that Beckett admired, but was irritated by, incidentally) as does the fact that ‘uterotaph’ is a variation (a delineation liberally interpreted on Nixon’s part) on one of Beckett’s favourite words. I understand the need to map each of Beckett’s references to Shakespeare, but I think that I would have appreciated a modest recommendations for further reading section instead, one that lists the complete works of Augustine, Shakespeare, Montague, Chaucer, Burton, Johnson, Homer, etc, etc, etc. That would represent a challenge.