Sam's lost tale
Echo's Bones Samuel Beckett edited by Mark Nixon Faber, hdbk, €27.60, 160 pages
Published 19/04/2014 | 02:30
The years in which the young Samuel Beckett prepared and published his first collection of short stories were, as he later remarked, "bad in every way, financially, psychologically".
In late 1930 he had returned to Dublin from teaching at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, reluctantly swapping the shabby dazzle of James Joyce's circle and the fun of drunken nights on the town for a post lecturing at Trinity College that he soon came to hate. Painfully awkward and shy, Beckett was tortured by public speaking, and he dreaded what he called the "grotesque comedy of lecturing" that involved "teaching to others what he did not know himself". To the horror of his parents, he resigned, bouncing disconsolately between Germany, Paris and London on a family stipend as he tried to get his first novel off the ground. Money became shorter and shorter. In the autumn of 1932, he was forced to "crawl home" to his parents in Dublin when the last £5 note his father sent him was stolen from his digs. He was 26.
At home, however, his problems were far from over. It soon became clear that Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the madcap, erudite, Joycean book he had written at speed in Paris earlier that year, was not going to be the success he imagined. During a miserable spell in London, feeling "depressed, the way a slug-ridden cabbage might expect to be", he shopped the manuscript around to several publishers: Chatto & Windus, the Hogarth Press, Jonathan Cape and Grayson & Grayson. The letter he wrote later to a friend summarised the results of the trip. "Shatton and Windup thought it was wonderful but they simply could not. The Hogarth Private Lunatic Asylum rejected it the way Punch would. Cape was écoeuré [disgusted] in pipe and cardigan and his Aberdeen terrier agreed with him. Grayson has lost it or cleaned himself with it."
Back in Dublin, wearily recognising that Dream might be unpublishable (it appeared posthumously in 1992), Beckett devoted his remaining energy to compiling a volume of short stories. Like his novel, these covered episodes in the life of Belacqua Shuah, a Dublin student who shared the author's obsession with Dante and Augustine as well as his hang-ups about sex. Perhaps still smarting from one publisher's suggestion that he forget the novel and try writing a bestseller, Beckett made half-hearted attempts to cultivate a less punishingly obscure prose style.
But the influence of Joyce's that he had so eagerly absorbed in Paris was hard to shed, and it was anyway, as he admitted to his publisher, "the only way I'm interested in writing".
In his new stories the reader was left to descry darkly the subjects of the stories – a wedding reception, a musical-literary salon, a man preparing and eating a cheese sandwich – through the self-consciously droll erudition of the prose. Even Beckett seems to have been creepingly conscious of the stories' glib insincerity. "This writing," he complained to Tom McGreevy, his friend in Paris, "is a bloody awful grind. I did two more 'short stories', bottled climates, comme ça, sans conviction, because one has to do something or perish with ennui". He wanted to call the collection "Draff", an obscure word meaning hogwash or slop.
It was slow work, and there were more serious problems competing for his attention. His health was a grim catalogue of vintage ailments, two of which (hammer toe, weeping cyst) were addressed with surgery in 1933. In May that year, his young cousin Peggy, with whom he had pursued a short romance a few years before, died of tuberculosis. Barely a month later, his beloved father died of a heart attack, leaving him devastated. "I can't write about him," Beckett told McGreevy in an uncharacteristically bald letter. "I can only walk the fields after him." Soon after, he began to suffer night sweats and panic attacks.
It was against this backdrop of death, illness and self-dislike that Beckett sat down to write Echo's Bones, the story, long unpublished, which appears now on the 80th anniversary of the collection it was intended to complete. In the autumn of 1933 Charles Prentice at Chatto had at last agreed to publish his book of stories, under the title More Pricks than Kicks, and was impatient for another 10,000 words to bring it to a suitable length. Beckett needed to produce something fast, but he had already killed off his protagonist in the collection's penultimate story. Instead of inserting a piece earlier in Belacqua's chronology, however, he chose to bring him back from the dead, and in doing so, produced what was very likely the least reader-friendly piece he ever wrote.
For Echo's Bones, Beckett returned to the method that had fuelled the creation of his novel the previous year, one that his biographer James Knowlson calls "grafting". It depended heavily on the notebooks he kept on his daily reading, into which he would copy favourite phrases before dropping them, whole or in part, into his own texts. The result is a blinding sandstorm of obscurantist reference. For the 41 pages of this published story, the editor, Mark Nixon, has produced 56 pages of textual notes, indefatigably tracing Beckett's pilfered fragments of Augustine, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying, Pierre Gagnier on masturbation, William M Cooper on flagellation and the omnipresent dusty lumps quarried from the copious Dream notebooks. It still feels barely sufficient to explain the text.
The story's plot is deliberately staccato and unhinged. Belacqua is cast up from the grave, "up and about in the dust of the world, back at his old games in the dim spot", and finds himself sitting on a fence smoking cigars. He has a brief philosophical assignation over garlic and rum with a prostitute (sample dialogue: "Alas, Gnaeni, the pranic bleb, is far from being a mandrake. His leprechaun lets him out about this time every Sunday. They have no conduction"), before being kidnapped by the grotesque Lord Gall, an impotent golfing aristocrat of monstrous proportions who carries Belacqua on his shoulders up a tree, where he persuades him to impregnate his wife and meet his pet ostrich. Belacqua then returns to his grave for a ferociously esoteric conversation ("Why people have not got the gumption to begin with the Dove and end with the Son passes my persimmon") with the groundsman trying to rob it. Several characters from the book's earlier stories arise from the bay aboard a submarine, and watch him crossly from afar. The grave, once uncovered, is empty. "So it goes in the world," the story concludes.
Perhaps Godot or Happy Days might appear similarly ridiculous in summary. But Beckett's linguistic approach here stands in fascinating opposition to his subsequent progression towards what he called a "lessness" of language and object. Speaking to James Knowlson in 1989, he described his eventual realisation that Joyce "had gone as far as he could in the direction of knowing more ... I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowing and in taking away." That epiphany lay far in the future, but the sterile, spasmodic prose in Echo's Bones already shows him trying to pass his Joyce influence like a kidney stone.
It was, he wrote to McGreevy, a story "into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of"; a glaring, unhappy piece of intellectual strangulation from a writer at the end of a self-woven rope.
The result appalled his publisher in London. "It is a nightmare," wrote Prentice, apologetically but firmly; "Echo's Bones would, I am sure, lose the book a great many readers." Glumly inured to catastrophe, Beckett submitted, privately acknowledging to McGreevy that Prentice was probably right, and More Pricks than Kicks appeared the following year without its "fagpiece".
By then, its author was in London, seeking more immediate solutions to his night terrors and "bubbling heart" in a long and fruitful course of psychotherapy with the analyst Wilfred Bion. One might swap any number of Echo's Bones-era stories for a transcript of that interaction. As it is, this frustrated, frustrating (but wonderfully edited) piece of juvenilia is really for specialists and masochists only. So it goes in the world.
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