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 bleakly funny exercise in futility. In September 1933 Charles Prentice accepted More Pricks for publication by Chatto. He wrote four days later to suggest a final story to bulk up the volume: “Another 10,000 words, or even 5,000 for that matter, would, I am sure, help the book, and it would be lovely if you could manage to reel them out.” Beckett did not reel anything out: he agonized over the additional story, “Echo’s Bones,” all through October and early November, eventually sending Prentice 13,500 words. Prentice promised to “read it with delight over this weekend.” He did read it but with a good deal more dismay than delight. He wrote to Beckett:
It is a nightmare…. It gives me the jim-jams…. 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?… “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.
Beckett quickly agreed with Prentice’s judgment and withdrew the new story. The comic irony is perfect: More Pricks, as it turned out, didn’t need its missing adjunct to depress its sales. In spite of some half-admiring reviews, the book sank into obscurity, not least in Beckett’s own mind. In a letter in 1959, he told Barbara Bray that he remembered only two of the ten stories:
Wouldn’t open More Pricks for a king’s ransom. I remember Yellow vaguely, and Dante and the Lobster, the others not at all, not a clue. Glad you got something from them, don’t know how you do it.
After he became famous, he had to be badgered into allowing the stories to reappear, telling Barney Rosset in 1964 that
I have broken down half way through galleys of More Pricks Than Kicks. I simply can’t bear it. It was a ghastly mistake on my part to imagine, not having looked at it for a quarter of a century, that this old shit was revivable.
He seems essentially to have written the book off as juvenilia, warning the then-young Irish novelist Aidan Higgins in 1958 against “the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.”
If this was true for More Pricks, it was even more so for its abandoned orphan, “Echo’s Bones.” When Beckett eventually relented and allowed More Pricks to be republished in the UK in 1970 and published for the first time in the US in 1972, there seems to have been no question of rescuing the rejected eleventh story. It was known to scholars from a typescript in Dartmouth College and its carbon copy in the University of Texas at Austin, but Beckett had so definitively consigned it to the scrapheap that he recycled the title for his 1935 collection of poems, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates.
And yet there are reasons to see this forgetting of “Echo’s Bones” less as a retrospective judgment on its quality and more as the repression of a painful memory. For all his immediate compliance with Charles Prentice’s suggestion that it be dropped, Beckett was clearly hurt. He wrote to his closest friend, Thomas McGreevy, three weeks after Prentice’s rejection of the story:
I haven’t been doing anything. Charles’s fouting à la porte 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….
These are strong statements from a reticent man. That Beckett put all he knew into “Echo’s Bones” is not necessarily significant for his later development: immature writers tend to put all they know into their work, withholding too little. In the case of the twenty-seven-year-old Beckett, this is indeed the problem: the More Pricks stories are so dense with showy allusions that they can occasionally verge on the unreadable. (“Echo’s Bones” is published with forty-eight pages of original text and fifty-six pages of Mark Nixon’s all-too-indispensible explanatory annotations.)
It is easy to understand why the later Beckett, who built his aesthetic on what is not said and not known, should have had so little use for them. What really matters in “Echo’s Bones,” however, is that he also put in “plenty that I was better still aware of”—the things he did not know but sensed and felt and struggled to articulate. In this story, he is beginning to sense the path toward his own way of walking—that persistent, pointless, but strangely heroic trudge through the valley of the shadow of death that will be the trajectory of his mature work.
It is too glib to suggest that Beckett before “Echo’s Bones” is merely imitating Joyce and certainly far too sweeping to claim that he is free from his master after it: it will be another four years before he can write to McGreevy, in January 1938, that “I don’t feel the danger of the association [with Joyce] any more. He is just a very lovable human being.” Yet there is no mistaking the extent to which Beckett’s previous work is an attempt to grapple with the work of his fellow Dubliner. He himself was intensely conscious of his position as an acolyte, not least because he had made his first appearance in print as a precocious twenty-three-year-old disciple, one of the John the Baptists chosen by Joyce to herald Work in Progress (later known as Finnegans Wake) in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, etc. When he sent the story that first introduces Belacqua, the antihero of the ten pieces that make up More Pricks Than Kicks and also of “Echo’s Bones,” to Prentice in 1931, he half-apologized that “of course it stinks of Joyce in spite of most earnest endeavours to endow it with my own odours.”
The simplest way to grasp the difficulty of this act of literary fumigation is to remember how greatly Belacqua differs from what he is supposed to be. The character’s name is derived from the Florentine lute-maker in Canto IV of Dante’s Purgatorio who is too lazy to try to ascend from Purgatory into Paradise. Dante calls him “more indolent than if sloth were his sister.” Beckett’s idea seems to be that he should form a static counterpoint to the constant motion of Joyce’s characters. In the More Pricks stories, Belacqua is called “sinfully indolent, bogged in indolence, asking nothing better than to stay put”; “an indolent bourgeois poltroon”; and a character “acting with insufficient motivation.” Beckett’s notion is clearly of a stagnant protagonist like Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov—a figure he will indeed go on to create in his novel Murphy, published in 1938.
But Belacqua cannot adhere to this plan: he is in fact as restlessly mobile as Joyce’s characters are, turning up in all four compass points of Dublin and its environs. He cannot “stay put”: his desire for immobility is canceled by “his anxiety to keep on the move and his distress at finding himself brought to a standstill.” When he is not walking, he is usually driving. Beckett wants to write a book of stasis but he cannot occupy the Dublin territory that Joyce has mapped so minutely without falling into the peripatetic motion of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.
Equally, Beckett is consciously using other influences to arm himself against Joyce—most unexpectedly that of Henry Fielding, whose interruptions and digressions he mimics in a way that is antithetical to Joyce’s rigorous eschewal of open authorial intervention. The four-volume Journals of Jules Renard (published between 1887 and 1910), which he was reading constantly and from which he stole whole phrases, gave him access to a voice of bitter pessimism that was similarly far removed from Joyce’s all-knowing, all-forgiving manner. Jeremy Taylor’s seventeenth-century devotional manuals, Holy Living and Holy Dying, which Beckett also raids, provide a Protestant counterweight to Joyce’s Catholic inflections.
Even with these arms, however, it is still Joyce with whom he has to battle and he is not yet sure how to conduct the fight. At some points in More Pricks, he succumbs to clever but unconvincing imitation. “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux,” a story in the form of a letter from one of the women with whom Belacqua becomes entangled, is heavily indebted to Molly Bloom: a breathless, guileless rush of erotic thoughts in the first-person voice of a highly sexualized woman. It is notable because no such voice would appear in Beckett again until he wrote Happy Days twenty-five years later, but it is in itself too patronizing to be convincing. At other times, he tries to conduct his struggle with Joyce through parody. Belacqua himself, from his unlikely name to his status as an emotionally underdeveloped poet and intellectual, can be read as a burlesque of Stephen Dedalus.
The long story “A Wet Night” takes on Joyce’s own most famous story, “The Dead.” It is set around a Christmas Eve party in Dublin at which songs and recitations are performed and, in case the reader misses the impudence of the challenge, it has an obvious pastiche of the celebrated closing paragraph of “The Dead” in which snow is “falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.”
Beckett instead has rain that “fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.” The gesture here is one of rebellious mockery: the rain is a bleakly mock-heroic parody of Joyce’s beautiful snow. But as a gesture, it is unconvincing: the passage is not especially brilliant in itself and the promise it implies—that Beckett will be even more realistic than the ultra-realist Joyce—is not one he can fulfill. He is never going to expunge the odor of Joyce by being more gritty and grounded than the great master of physical detail. He needs something else and in “Echo’s Bones” we can begin to see the forces that will shape that something: cruelty, death, and persistence.
In the penultimate story of More Pricks Than Kicks, Belacqua dies as a result of a routine operation that gets botched. In order to write “Echo’s Bones,” Beckett had to bring him back from the dead to haunt the graveyard where he is buried, making the story a strange afterpiece to the nineteenth-century Irish gothic tradition of Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker. The narrator describes the tale as a “little triptych.” In the first part, the resurrected Belacqua encounters a prostitute, Zaborvna Privet. In the second, the giant Lord Gall of Wormwood, who is unable to father a child with his syphilitic wife, asks Belacqua to perform in his place so that he does not die intestate. In the final section, Belacqua meets a gardener who is in the act of robbing his grave, while one of his former lovers, now dead, appears in a submarine to gather and transport the souls of the departed.
It is not hard to see why poor Charles Prentice feared that readers would “shudder and be puzzled and confused.” The narrative structure is loose, picaresque, and fantastical. The language is so dense with allusions that at times it defeats even Nixon’s assiduous sleuthing for sources. Resort to his copious annotations is a constant necessity but even with them, it is impossible to parse a passage like “Gnaeni, the pranic bleb, is far from being a mandrake. His leprechaun lets him out about this time every Sunday. They have no conduction.” Here, the odor of Joyce at his most gnomic has turned sour. Yet “Echo’s Bones” is much more vigorous and engaging than these descriptions might suggest. Behind its tangled thickets and elaborate façades, there are two potent human realities that Beckett is “aware of” but does not “know”: sexual confusion and grief.
A dark, anguished sexuality runs all through More Pricks and becomes even darker in “Echo’s Bones.” Ostensibly, Belacqua has a series of heterosexual relationships with women—he marries three of them in sequence. But the More Pricks stories are most deeply interested in sterility and in forms of sex that cannot lead to procreation. When Belacqua has sex with a woman in “Love and Lethe,” she is terminally ill and their mutual excitement comes from the failure of a suicide pact. His marriage to one of his wives, Lucy, is sexless because she has suffered severe injuries in an accident—a situation he finds entirely congenial. We learn late in the collection that his own second name is Shuah—that of the mother of the biblical Onan, who spills his seed on the ground. And in “Walking Out,” Lucy discovers, before their marriage, that Belacqua is a voyeur who spies on a courting couple in the woods near his home.
These anxieties about sex are ratcheted up several notches in “Echo’s Bones,” which is shot through both with Belacqua’s fears about being raped and with references to homosexual and sadomasochistic practices. When he encounters Zaborvna Privet, she turns into a rapacious Gorgon. He goes with her to her lodging where he “to his astonishment was ravished.” In the second part, Belacqua is again ravished, at least metaphorically, by the giant Lord Gall, who sticks his head between Belacqua’s legs in order to lift him forcibly onto his shoulders: “But this, this rape, this contempt of his person, this violation…really it was not to be endured.”
Meanwhile, Beckett draws heavily on two obscure nineteenth-century books—Dr. Pierre Garnier’s Onanisme seul et à deux and Reverend William Cooper’s Flagellation and the Flagellants: A History of the Rod—for phrases and references. When we first meet the revenant Belacqua, he is sitting on the graveyard fence “bent double…like a casse-poitrine,” a term Nixon helpfully glosses as “the active partner in homosexual fellatio.” Lord Gall’s wife’s lover is Baron Extravas, a name that comes from a phrase in Garnier listing three forms of nonreproductive sex: “extra vas, ab ore, parte poste”—outside the vessel, by mouth, from behind. Repeated references to flagellants and their victims pepper the story.
All of this might be material for (aptly sterile) speculation about Beckett’s own sexuality in this period, but its essential significance is aesthetic. Over time, Beckett’s work will lose the misogynistic impulse that expresses itself in so many ugly and fearful images of women, but his interest in sadomasochism will be transformed into an artistic method. The mature Beckett practices a kind of controlled, consensual cruelty on his readers and audiences. His great novels and plays torment us with the knowledge that they will refuse to yield the satisfaction of semantic release. They defy us to stop reading, to get up and leave the theater. But at the same time they hold us by their mesmerizing artistry. We laugh at our compliance, as when, after an excruciatingly tedious sequence of meaningless actions in Endgame, Clov turns his telescope on the audience and announces, “I see…a multitude…in transports…of joy.” Even as we laugh, we recognize our bondage.
The mature Beckett does not tell us that people persist through torments—he gives us this experience. And in “Echo’s Bones,” we can see him beginning to turn his interest in sexual cruelty into a feel for this aesthetic cruelty. The text contains its own mockery of the reader for persisting with its obscurities and apparent arbitrariness. Belacqua expostulates at one point: “This is mere foolishness, my readers will be out of all patience.” He also swats away the same readers’ hopes for properly motivated action: “I never care to look into motive…. It seems to be an impertinence.” Lord Gall, the narrator tells us, “was really very dense. He could not follow the simplest discourse.” The lovely pun on “dense” (referring both to stupidity and to the impossible thickness of allusion in much of the surrounding text) is worthy of the mature Beckett. These devices, of course, are not original: Beckett takes them from Henry Fielding. But their context is new—Beckett is beginning to grasp the possibilities of a literature that refuses to distinguish between pleasure and pain.
Of even larger significance is the way “Echo’s Bones” is saturated in grief. The revenant Belacqua is a figure of some moment because he is the first of Beckett’s “dead voices.” However painful the fate of the story at the time, Charles Prentice did Beckett a great favor by making him revivify a character he had already killed off. As a mature writer, he will write as if from beyond the grave, and as though language itself is dead. “All the dead voices,” chant Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. “They make a noise like wings./Like leaves…. They rustle./ They murmur…. To have lived is not enough for them./They have to talk about it./To be dead is not enough for them./It is not sufficient.” In “Echo’s Bones,” we find Beckett listening for the first time to the rustling and murmurs of those who go on talking because being dead is not enough for them. The story’s title comes from Ovid’s nymph Echo, whose bones turn to stone but whose voice lingers on. This will be one of the great recurring ideas of Beckett’s mature work—the flow of language that is not stopped by death.
This idea hardly arose in 1933 merely because Prentice asked for another story. The need to revive Belacqua forced Beckett to deal in his own oblique way with the thoughts of death that had surrounded him that year. In the ten months before he wrote “Echo’s Bones,” mortality pressed in on him. At the end of 1932, he was in the hospital for operations on his neck and foot: we know from the (paradoxically vivid) penultimate story in More Pricks, “Yellow,” which closely follows that experience, that he was afraid of dying under the anesthetic, the fate that befalls Belacqua in the book. In May 1933, when he was back in hospital for another operation, his first cousin Peggy Sinclair, with whom he had once been infatuated (she is the model for Smeraldina in More Pricks), died suddenly in Germany. A month later, Beckett’s beloved father William, who was just sixty-one, died of a heart attack.
It is no great stretch to suggest that his father’s death, and his own unprocessed feelings about it, form the emotional setting for “Echo’s Bones”: the graveyard haunted by the returned Belacqua, set between the sea and the mountains, is clearly Redfern cemetery in Greystones, County Wicklow, where William had just been interred and the undertaker said to have buried Belacqua, Nichols, did the same office for Beckett’s father. It is unsurprising that Hamlet, the archetypal son haunted by his dead father, is a point of reference in the story.
It is grief—and the attempts to mock and defy it—that gives to “Echo’s Bones” a quality beyond Beckett’s precocious cleverness. There is a new note of Dantesque beauty in the opening paragraph:
The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.
The whole story can be read as an extended fantasy in which death itself is rendered negligible, or as Belacqua puts it, “I sometimes wonder whether death is not the greatest swindle of modern times.” If Belacqua’s ghost has any message it is that “One: no lives can be dropped. Two: you can’t cut off the entail.” Therein lies the seed of Beckett’s mature work, in which even the most minimal of lives refuses to be dropped and even the dead refuse to be cut off in their incessant flow of speech. When his father died, Beckett wrote to McGreevy: “I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.” But perhaps in following his father’s footsteps, Beckett found a way to begin to walk in his own shoes.
Georges Belmont, “Remembering Sam,” in Beckett in Dublin, edited by S.E. Wilmer (Lilliput Press, 1992), pp. 114–115. Pelorson, a Vichy collaborator, was blacklisted after the Liberation and changed his name to Belmont. ↩
John Pilling collates the figures in Samuel Beckett’s ‘More Pricks Than Kicks’: In a Strait of Two Wills (Continuum, 2011), p. 3. ↩