Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett (Grove Press, June 2014) Reviewed by Justin Beplate

Echo’s Bones
by Samuel Beckett
(Grove Press, June 2014)

Reviewed by Justin Beplate

“Echo’s Bones” is one of Beckett's earliest creative efforts, a short story written in the fall of 1933, in the wake of his father's sudden death that summer and the thickening gloom of health troubles and general depression over his future prospects as a writer. The manuscript of his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women had been doing the rounds of London publishers without success; his cousin and intimate Peggy Sinclair had succumbed to tuberculosis in May that year; and his application for a position at London's National Gallery had just been rejected. Little wonder that death and inertia figure so prominently in “Echo’s Bones,” a difficult and disjointed story which resurrects Beckett's central character Belacqua from the “fiasco” of his untimely death and returns him to play out a final part in “this fagpiece, this little triptych,” (to use the text's own self-description).

As was the case for Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Beckett’s “little triptych” was to remain unpublished in his own lifetime, at first for want of interest by nonplussed publishers, later because the author was reluctant to see in print these products of youthful bravura, with all their Joycean excesses of language and their caricatured cast of friends and former lovers. While his novel was published posthumously in 1992, the only two extant copies of “Echo’s Bones” remained buried in the library archives of Dartmouth College and the University of Texas at Austin, accessible only to a handful of Beckett scholars and researchers. Now, the story is finally available to the general public, along with extensive annotations to this most densely allusive of texts.

The piece was originally written at the suggestion of Charles Prentice, editor at Chatto & Windus, who had agreed to publish a collection of short stories submitted by Beckett in September 1933 under the title More Pricks Than Kicks. These stories were mostly re-worked versions of episodes from Dream of Fair to Middling Women, though many passages were simply copied verbatim. The central protagonist of these interlinked stories is the improbably named Dubliner Belacqua Shuah, an amalgam of the indolent lute maker in Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Biblical figure of Shuah, whose ill-starred grandson Onan, slain by God for the crime of spilling his seed, gave his name to the practice of onanism or masturbation. Prentice was enthusiastic about the ten stories submitted by Beckett, but suggested that the addition of another story would beef up the collection and help sales. Beckett, delighted at the prospect of finally seeing his creative writing in print, readily agreed, though the task of grinding out a final story was to prove exhausting. “I have to do another story for More Pricks, Belacqua redivivus,” he wrote to his friend Tom MacGreevy, “and I’m as stupid as a goat.”

As Beckett’s remark implies, the small problem of where to go after the central character of the collection had already been killed off was to be solved by bringing him back, not exactly to life, but “back into the muck” at any rate, to a kind of shadowy half-life (not quite human, not quite ghost). For it appears, from the opening pages of the story, that the mere fact of kicking the bucket has done little to release Belacqua from the goads of existence as he feels “all the old pains and aches of me soul-junk return.” Perched on a fence in a perfect state of limbo, he wonders “if his lifeless condition were not all a dream,” and whether he had perhaps been a whole lot deader before his “formal” demise.

Belacqua’s “dream” is, in part, a sly reference to the unpublished novel Beckett so assiduously mined for his collection of short stories, but it also gives fair warning of what is to follow. For in its abrupt switches of narrative perspective, in the sudden appearance and disappearance of characters and their incoherent dialogues, the story follows a bizarre dream logic. The story’s tripartite structure may give the semblance of coherence, but nothing hinges on this; indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that the shifting figures of this little triptych are decidedly unhinged, obeying no laws of cause and effect or continuity of action.

The plot, such as it is, can be quickly sketched. In the opening sequence, Belacqua is accosted by the shape-shifting prostitute Zaborovna Privet and, having discoursed on such pleasantries as the self-abusive mood of reflexive verbs and his disconcerting lack of a personal shadow, he obediently follows her back to her lodgings to be ravished over garlic and white rum. In the following scene, the golf-mad, bald colossus Lord Gall of Wormwood appears and enlists Belacqua’s aid in fathering a son and heir to his large estate, the idea being to prevent the land reverting to the villainous (and sexually potent) Baron Extravas. Belacqua, never one to rush into a commitment, takes some convincing, but finally agrees to do the deed with Lady Moll Gall, whom he discovers to be “the most filthy little bromide of a half-baked puella that you could possibly imagine.” Lady Moll falls pregnant and in due course gives birth to a fine—pause for dramatic effect—baby girl, thereby dashing Lord Gall’s best laid plans and leaving the field clear for the scheming Baron. Having done with this shaggy dog story, the story’s focus switches abruptly to a graveyard scene, with Belacqua perched, in typically precarious style, on his own headstone. A dialogue ensues with the groundsman Doyle, who, fortified with alcohol and undeterred by the spectral figure of Belacqua, has come to rob his grave. When he finally succeeds (with Belacqua’s help) in opening the coffin, however, it turns out to be empty apart from a handful of stones.

“It is a nightmare,” Prentice wrote to Beckett three days after receiving the story, “Just too terribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams. The same horrible and immediate switches of the focus, and the same wild unfathomable energy of the population . . . ‘Echo’s Bones’ would, I am sure, lose the book a great many readers. People will shudder and be puzzled and confused; and they won’t be keen on analyzing the shudder.” Prentice, apologetic but firm, advised Beckett that it would be best to leave “Echo’s Bones” out of the collection and just publish the existing ten stories. Prentice’s verdict came as a demoralizing blow for Beckett. He confided to MacGreevy that his rejection of a story “into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of, discouraged me profoundly,” but then added, “no doubt he was right.”

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. Nixon, who is Director of the Beckett International Foundation at Reading University, brings a light but sure touch to the task of referencing Beckett’s source material, drawing freely (as he readily acknowledges) on the archival toil of John Pilling and other Beckett scholars. The range of material is staggering, from the refined and recondite to the popular and downright bawdy. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and St. Augustine’s Confessions figure prominently, as do a number of more colorful works, including William M. Cooper’s Flagellation and the Flagellants and Pierre Garnier’s splendidly titled Onanisme seul et à deux, sous toutes ses formes et leurs conséquences.

This process of tracing sources is given a further twist by Beckett’s practice of interleaving reworked quotations from his own writings. A small example of this occurs in “Echo’s Bones” during an exchange between Belacqua and Doyle:

Without the slightest hesitation Doyle made a mot of some note.
“For the purposes of stinging” he said “Death is no better equipped than a wasp.”
Belacqua thought it very good but did not say so. He made a mental note of it however. He knew exactly on whom it could be placed with most success.

Doyle’s bon mot is, of course, an allusion to the Bible’s “O Death, where is thy sting?” and is a phrase of some note in this context because it has already been quoted by another character in the closing story of More Pricks Than Kicks. Belacqua, following Beckett’s own habit of “notesnatching,” adds Doyle’s reworked version of the phrase to his arsenal of ready-made quotes, already envisaging some future target against whom it could be used.

As Nixon points out in his excellent Introduction, there is barely a single sentence in “Echo’s Bones” that is not borrowed from one source or another. Beckett was in the habit of taking copious notes of his reading matter, jotting down extensive passages in a hardback notebook in the early 1930s that would provide a wealth of material for Dream of Fair to Middling Women. It may also have provided a welcome distraction from the need to write, a need made all the more pressing by Beckett’s precarious financial situation in the wake of his decision to resign his post at Trinity College Dublin and abandon any prospect of an academic career. He wrote in despair to MacGreevy in late 1931, “I’m right in a dead spot . . . I can’t write anything at all, can’t imagine even the shape of a sentence, nor take notes (though God knows I have enough ‘butin verbal’ to strangle anything I’m likely to want to say).”

Beckett, like his early mentor Joyce, had a good memory for words. Everything being grist to the modernist mill, from ribald ballads to Greek philosophy, obsessive notesnatching was one way to ensure that nothing was lost. Joyce’s method of composition was described by his biographer Richard Ellmann as “the imaginative absorption of stray material,” a relentless storing up and reworking of the flotsam and jetsam of remembered phrases. As Joyce himself put it in a letter to Harriet Weaver before the publication of Ulysses, “My head is full of pebbles and rubbish and broken matches and bits of glass picked up ’most everywhere.”

This habit of hoarding material is not without its dangers, of course. Joyce was alive to the encroachments of memory on the workings of creative imagination, but managed (at least up until Finnegans Wake) to forge a suitable form for the ever-accumulating mass. It was an impossible act to follow, however. The terminus presented by Joyce’s compositional method was later acknowledged by Beckett, both in his correspondence and in his fiction. Mercier et Camier (1970) mockingly recalls his own youthful conceit of stored-up phrases as a kind of “verbal booty” to be plundered at will: “You cultivate your memory till it’s passable, a treasure-bin, stroll in your crypt, unlit, return to the scenes, call back the old sounds (paramount), till you have the lot off pat and you at a loss, head, nose, ears and the rest what remains to snuff up, they all smell equally sweet, what old jingles to play back! Pretty beyond!”

Beckett’s learning is not worn lightly in his earlier writings; it is flaunted, aggressively at times, as the gleaming riches of a well-stocked mind. As Nixon has pointed out elsewhere, the intertextual material of Dream of Fair to Middling Women (and by extension of More Pricks Than Kicks) is often merely “thrown” at the text in a kind of scattergun spraying of references. In Beckett’s mature writings, these references are buried deeper, incorporated more fully into the text by the transmutations of time and memory and by the formal workings of a mature prose style, completely disengaged from Joycean principles of composition. “Echo’s Bones” stands as a transitional work in this regard, a jettisoning of all the accumulated matter of the Dream Notebook in one last frenzy of narrative excess—what Charles Prentice called the “wild unfathomable energy” of the story. After the disappointing reception of More Pricks Than Kicks Beckett would turn, with increasing sureness of purpose, to those subjects that he would make his own in the postwar period: impotence, lessness, liminality.

 

Justin Beplate teaches English at the University of Paris II. His reviews have appeared in the TLS, The Literary Review, and New Statesman.