Echo's Bones

by Samuel Beckett and Mark Nixon

Hardcover, 121 pages, Grove Press, List Price: $22 | purchase

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Echo's Bones
Author
Samuel Beckett and Mark Nixon

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Published for the first time, this Beckett story was originally intended to appear in a collection of interrelated stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but was rejected by the editor due to inconsistencies in the collective narrative.

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Excerpt: Echo's Bones

From the Introduction by Mark Nixon:

On 25 September 1933, the London publishing house Chatto & Windus accepted Beckett's collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, for publication. Writing to Beckett, Chatto's editor Charles Prentice wondered whether Beckett could add another story, which would 'help the book' by bulking up the content. Beckett agreed, and proceeded to write what he called a 'recessional story' entitled 'Echo's Bones', which was to conclude the collection. Within three days of receiving the story, however, Prentice, on 13 November 1933, turned it down arguing that the story was a 'nightmare' and 'would depress the sales very considerably'. More Pricks Than Kicks was published on 24 May 1934 as Beckett had originally submitted it, with ten rather than eleven stories. Now, nearly 80 years after it was first written, the enigmatic 'Echo's Bones' makes its first public appearance.

The failure of 'Echo's Bones' to see the light of day in 1934 needs to be seen in the context of the young writer's desperate struggle to get published in the early 1930s. In many respects, the story of 'Echo's Bones' begins with Beckett's first substantial piece of fiction, the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, written between May 1931 and July 1932. Encouraged by Chatto's publication of his book on Marcel Proust (Proust, 1931), Beckett submitted the novel to the publishers. On receiving it in the summer of 1932, however, Prentice politely called it 'a strange thing', praised those sections in which the writing was 'right away from Joyce', and then unsurprisingly rejected it (5 July 1932). As Prentice told the writer Richard Aldington, turning down Beckett's first novel was 'Perhaps a mistake; but it would have been an almost impossible thing to handle; we didn't understand half of it ourselves' (5 September 1932).

Over the next nine months, the book continued to confuse and alienate publishers. With rejection notices piling up around him, and with no steady income after resigning his lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, Beckett by the middle of 1933 must have realised that Dream was never going to be published (it only appeared posthumously in 1992), and subsequently turned his attention to assembling a set of short stories, some of which he had written as early as 1931.

With Dream unpublished, and with not enough stories to make up a solid collection that would interest a publisher (or 'invite a publisher to wipe his arse with', in his words), Beckett began to recycle material from the novel, salvaging those sections that could easily be integrated into or adapted to the shorter literary form. Thus for example the story 'A Wet Night', as it appears in More Pricks Than Kicks, is taken nearly verbatim from the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Beckett also pilfered material from his Dream Notebook, reading notes collated for the writing of the novel. This pragmatic approach also had, to Beckett's mind, intellectual precedence, advocating in his essay on Proust 'that most necessary, wholesome and monotonous plagiarism — the plagiarism of oneself' (33).

By September 1933, Beckett had assembled ten stories amounting to roughly 60,000 words. After his failure to place his writing with publishers, Beckett was hardly confident that his collection would find favour, despite telling his friend Thomas MacGreevy in a letter of 7 September 1933, and referring to the first story of More Pricks Than Kicks, that 'if people can read Saki they can read anything, even Dante & Lobster' (qtd. in Pilling 1997, 99). Prentice must have agreed with this evaluation. In his letter of acceptance dated 25 September 1933, he asked whether Beckett could come up with a 'livelier title' to replace Draff (the name of the final story of More Pricks Than Kicks), adding 'Hurray too if you manage that extra story', which suggests that Beckett may have raised the issue of writing a further story should the publisher feel that the collection was on the short side. Thanking Beckett for the revised title, More Pricks Than Kicks, Prentice reiterated his belief that 'another 10,000 words, or even 5,000 for that matter, would, I am certain, help the book' (29 September 1933). Beckett, for various reasons, struggled to accommodate the request. As he told MacGreevy, part of the problem was that he had killed off the protagonist of the collection in the penultimate story, 'Yellow': 'I have to do another story for More Pricks, Belacqua redivivus, and I'm as stupid as a goat' (9 October 1933; LSB I, 167). The fact that Belacqua would have to be resurrected for the new final story was acknowledged by Prentice: 'I'm delighted that Belacqua Lazarus will be walking again shortly' (4 October 1933). By early November, Beckett confessed to MacGreevy that he was 'grinding out the last yelps for C. & W.' but was 'having awful trouble' with it (1 November 1933). Yet he must have succeeded in writing the story rather quickly after this, as Prentice acknowledged receipt of it on 10 November 1933, while also registering his surprise at its length of 13,500 words ('What a big one!'). More importantly, the story as a whole completely confounded him, and in a long letter, phrased apologetically yet firmly, Prentice informed Beckett on 13 November that 'Echo's Bones' was not suitable for publication; the letter is worth citing at length:

It is a nightmare. 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. There are chunks I don't connect with. I am so sorry to feel like this. Perhaps it is only over the details, and I may have a correct inkling of the main impression. I am sorry, for I hate to be dense, but I hope I am not altogether insensitive. 'Echo's Bones' certainly did land on me with a wallop.

Do you mind if we leave it out of the book — that is, publish 'More Pricks than Kicks' in the original form in which you sent it in? Though it's on the short side, we'll still be able to price it at 7/6d. '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 analysing the shudder. I am certain that 'Echo's Bones' would depress the sales very considerably.

I hate having to say this, as well as falling behind scratch myself, and I hope
you will forgive as far as you can. Please try to make allowances for us; the future of the book affects you as well.

This is a dreadful débâcle?on my part, not on yours, God save the mark. But I have to own up to it. A failure, a blind-spot, call it what I may. Yet the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me. I am sitting on the ground, and ashes are on my head.

Beckett's response to this remarkable letter appears to have been tempered by acquiescence, although a possibly more honest reaction is found in a letter to MacGreevy written shortly afterward: 'I haven't been doing anything. Charles's fouting a la porte [kicking out] of Echo's Bones, the last story, into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of, discouraged me profoundly. . . . But no doubt he was right. I tell him so, therefore all that entre nous [between us]' (6 December 1933; LSB I, 171). Indeed, the failure of the story provoked Beckett into writing a poem of the same name, and he subsequently used the title again for his first collection of poems, Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935). And, although it would surely have been difficult for him to feel otherwise at the time, the writing of the story was not an entirely wasted effort, as he transferred material from ?Echo's Bones' to a revised ending of 'Draff', and thus to More Pricks Than Kicks as a whole; Prentice (on 11 December 1933) praised 'the new little bit at the end', calling it 'a decided improvement'.

On first reading 'Echo's Bones', one cannot help but sympathise with Prentice's decision to reject the story. As an early critic, Rubin Rabinowitz, summarised it: 'the setting is unrealistic, the plot improbable, the characters bizarre' (55). 'Echo's Bones' is a difficult, at times obscure story, uneven in tone and mood and evasive in stating its business. It bristles with tensions that arise from its fragmented nature, its incessant intertextual borrowings, the way it shifts between different literary styles and its allusive, wayward language, none of which allow the story to coalesce into a unity, even of the 'involuntary' kind that characterised Dream of Fair to Middling Women. But if the story is rather wild and undisciplined, it is also quite brilliantly so, especially in the flaunting yet withholding of its 'shabby mysteries' ('Draff', 174). The imaginative playfulness mixes styles and sources, all of which gesture toward Joyce but ultimately establish something rather more distinctly Beckettian.

Beckett obviously struggled to write the story. His correspondence with MacGreevy testifies to the fact that his heart was not really in the book as a whole ('But it is all jigsaw and I am not interested'), viewing More Pricks Than Kicks as a concession to the marketplace, and in terms of literary merit inferior to what he had tried to do with the novel Dream. Moreover, Beckett's feelings about his creative activities must have been complicated by the death of his father only a few months earlier (on 26 June 1933), which may have contributed to his decision to abandon the kind of allusive, fragmentary, and ultimately Joycean writing that might fulfil his own artistic criteria but would not sustain a living. As a result, Beckett's struggle to write the story is evident across the surface of the text. The characters themselves are ostensibly trying to keep a story going even as it tries at every turn to sabotage them from doing so. More than once, for example, the text obstructs itself, as when Lord Gall 'could not go on with what he was saying'.

Naturally enough, the largest challenge facing Beckett in writing this 'fagpiece', as the story calls itself, was how to ensure its consistency within the collection as a whole. He must have decided that it was easier to resurrect Belacqua from the dead and to add a story at the end of the book than to upset the unity, if there is one, of More Pricks Than Kicks by inserting one at an earlier point. Throughout the volume, Belacqua negotiates a world of love and death, and in 'Echo's Bones' is faced with an afterlife. Even before his untimely demise during a surgical operation in the story 'Yellow', Belacqua was described (in Dream) as a 'horrible border-creature' (123), a state of being reinforced in 'Echo's Bones' by his opening position, seated on a fence. Although a ghost, and casting no shadow, Belacqua is very much a corporeal entity, brought back to life in order to atone for his narcissism, his solipsism and for being an ?indolent bourgeois poltroon' (174) in the previous stories, indolent like his namesake in Dante's Divine Comedy.

The story self-referentially calls itself a 'triptych', and it is indeed a piece in three movements, but whose panels barely make up a whole. The first part tells the story of Belacqua's resurrection and his encounter with the prostitute Miss Zaborovna Privet. The second deals with the giant Lord Gall of Wormwood, who is unable to father a son and will lose his estate to the fertile Baron Extravas should he die intestate. Lord Gall thus requests that Belacqua help make him a father; Belacqua complies, and Lady Moll Gall does indeed give birth — to a girl, since this is a shaggy dog story. The story then switches in its final part abruptly to Belacqua sitting on his own headstone, watching the groundsman Doyle rob his grave. Although Doyle had already appeared as an unnamed minor figure in 'Draff', the other main characters are new to the collection. But in an attempt to establish a sense of continuity between 'Echo's Bones' and the other stories of More Pricks, Beckett reintroduces several characters despite having killed off several of them (including Belacqua) in the course of the book, as summarised during the opening of 'Draff': 'Then shortly after that they suddenly seemed to be all dead, Lucy of course long since, Ruby duly, Winnie to decency, Alba Perdue in the natural course of being seen home' (167). Nevertheless, at two points in 'Echo's Bones' a parade of characters passes by in the background. Thus for example the Parambini and Caleken Frika make an appearance, as does the (deceased) Alba, one of Belacqua's love interests, who surfaces surreally in a submarine transporting the souls of the dead. The reintroduction of these characters, who add nothing to the plot, or plots, presumably prompted Prentice's reference to the ?wild unfathomable energy of the population'.

As for the 'horrible and immediate switches of focus', there is hardly a sentence in 'Echo's Bones' that is not borrowed from one source or another, bearing out Beckett's own statement that he had 'put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of' into the story. These references range from the recondite to the popular (Marlene Dietrich, French chansons), and are inscribed in the text both openly and covertly. In compositional terms, 'Echo's Bones' mainly draws on the so-called Dream notebook; essentially Beckett used those quotations from this artistic notebook that he had not previously used in the novel of the same name or in More Pricks Than Kicks. Either Beckett was grasping around for whatever he had to hand, in his haste to complete this last story for Chatto & Windus, or he was re-enacting a compositional strategy that had been impressed upon the young writer by Joyce's example. 'Echo's Bones' is, without doubt, more densely allusive, more Joycean, than any of Beckett's other early writings; both on a verbal and a structural level, it harnesses a range of materials, from science and philosophy to religion and literature. As its title suggests, this is a story made up of echoes, of allusions to multiple cultural contexts. However, as John Pilling has remarked, at times there are so 'many echoes that they seem to multiply to infinity, and yet they are little more than the bare bones of material without any overarching purpose to animate' (Pilling 2011, 104). The switches between the three parts of the story, as well as the references both erudite and contemporary seem randomised, all of which is compounded by the switches in register. The style draws on various literary periods, and the language oscillates between the ornate ('Archipelagoes of pollards, spangled with glades') and the demotic (Dublin slang).

The story structurally and conceptually parallels Dante's glimpse of the afterlife in the Divine Comedy, and plays on forms of atonement that correspond to the sinner's actual vices. The pervasively purgatorial tone is compounded by phrases taken from the Bible as well as from Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ and Jeremy Taylor's The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying (1650-1), the latter a book Beckett was reading at the time he was composing the story. However, and despite the many quotations from St. Augustine's Confessions, this is not a story of punishment, conversion and salvation. Indeed, any possibility of religious salvation for Belacqua is undercut by the litter of sexual puns (learned or schoolboy), lewd jokes and terminology deriving from flagellation, infertility and homosexuality, especially in the second part of the story. Just as the themes of impotence and sterility are woven through the story, clothed in literary as well as sexual allusions. The threat of reproductive sex, visible across Beckett's early work, is here deflected humorously, and the general profanity owes much to the Marquis de Sade, whose 120 Days of Sodom Beckett was later to consider translating into English.

The struggle to identify what is at stake in the story is made more difficult by the employment of devices from fantastical, non-realist genres and narratives. One such area is myth; as the title already suggests, Beckett employs the story of Narcissus and Echo from Ovid's Metamorphoses to frame Belacqua's 'post-obit' journey from living character to echoic voice, until only his bones remain in the final tableau of the story. Beckett also invests the proceedings with a gothic atmosphere, especially in the final section which plays out in a cemetery. Perhaps more surprising is the use of fairy tale, a form which throws longer shadows over Beckett's early oeuvre than is usually acknowledged. Blending fairy tales, gothic dreams and classical myth, 'Echo's Bones' is in parts a fantastical story replete with giants, tree-houses, mandrakes, ostriches and mushrooms, drawing on a tradition of folklore as popularised for example by W.B. Yeats and the Brothers Grimm.

Beckett's experiments with the fairy tale form, and the general hilarity of the knock-about between Belacqua and Lord Gall, obscure but never quite obliterate the sense of grief and absence that pervades the story. Indeed, as its opening words indicate, 'the dead die hard', and Beckett may well have had the deaths of his cousin and lover, Peggy Sinclair (in May 1933, of tuberculosis), and of his father (in June 1933) on his mind when writing the story.