Samuel Beckett: The Private Voice

Echo’s Bones

by Samuel Beckett, edited by Mark Nixon
Grove, 121 pp., $22.00
Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by Pancho

Georges Pelorson, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett’s, recalled a walk they took together in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1929 or 1930, when Beckett was twenty-three or twenty-four:

After a few hundred yards I noticed Sam was walking almost like a duck. I said to him “What’s the matter with you, are your feet hurting?” and he said “yes.” “Why, are you tired?” and he answered “No it’s my shoes. They’re too tight.” “Well, why don’t you change them?” I got no answer or rather I got it years later.

The answer came when Pelorson met Beckett in Paris with James Joyce. Joyce was wearing “extraordinary shoes of a blistering canary yellow.” Pelorson had his answer to the mystery of Beckett’s sore feet:

Sam was sitting nearby and as I was looking at him all of a sudden I realized that his shoes were exactly the same size as Joyce’s, though evidently his feet were not…. Of course, at the time he was really haunted by Joyce, imitating him in all his most characteristic attitudes, dressing like him, eating the same food as him, holding himself like him.1

In the early 1930s, the young Beckett was trying, with sometimes painful results, to walk in Joyce’s shoes. “Echo’s Bones,” a long story written in 1933 but never published until now, matters because it shows him beginning to walk in his own. It helps us to see Beckett becoming Beckett—a development of some importance in the genealogy of twentieth-century literature.

In its external circumstances, “Echo’s Bones” is deliciously Beckettian: a rejected appendage to an abject failure. Twenty-five years later, in his play Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett created a version of himself as he might have been if he had not escaped from Joyce’s shadow: a crapulous ex-writer tethered to the pomposities of his past. Having listened to his own voice from decades before, pontificating about his great literary opus, Krapp dryly undercuts its pretensions:

Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known. [Pause.] One pound six and something, eight I have little doubt.

The book in question is undoubtedly Beckett’s first creative work, a collection of ten linked stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, published by Chatto and Windus in London in May 1934, when the author was twenty-seven. “Seventeen copies sold” is comic deflation, but More Pricks was a woeful flop nonetheless. By March 1935, it had sold 377 copies. Thereafter until 1946 it continued to sell at an average rate of two copies a year.2 “Getting known” is a perfect example of the mature Beckett’s deadpan economy of laughable misery.

“Echo’s Bones” fared even worse: it did not rise to this level of public failure. The story behind it is almost worthy in itself of a small Beckett drama: a glimmer of hope giving way to a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.