Samuel Beckett’s forgotten story, finally published after 80 years: Echo’s Bones
Review: Rejected in 1933 as a nightmare, Beckett’s story in fact is clean fun, witty but not vulgar
Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
Faber & Faber
Between May 1931 and July 1932 Samuel Beckett wrote a novel called Dream of Fair to Middling Women. When it was rejected by several publishers he put it aside and turned his attention to another work of fiction, a collection of his short stories not yet sufficient to make a book. He resolved that problem by plagiarising himself, adding three stories from material resting idle in the Dream and notes he had written for that book. The addition was not difficult, because several fancy prose styles were on show alike in the novel and the short stories.
In the first week of September 1933 Beckett offered Charles Prentice of Chatto & Windus a book of 10 short stories called Draff, featuring as their main character, in a manner of speaking, one Belacqua Shuah, late of Dante’s Purgatorio Canto IV and Dream of Fair to Middling Women. The book emanated, it seems, from the Celtic revival in its ironic or decadent stage.
In no time, by letter of September 25th, 1933, Prentice accepted it, subject to the proviso that Beckett would furnish a more attractive title for it, “something tripping and conversational”. Recalling Acts 9:5, where the Lord says to Paul, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” Beckett suggested More Pricks Than Kicks, and Prentice thought well of it. Prentice also thought that Beckett might write an additional story to bulk out the typescript. Beckett agreed and set about writing a story that turned out to be Echo’s Bones, 13,500 words in all. This time, in a letter of November 13th, Prentice said a sad, firm no. The story “would lose the book a great many readers” – and, besides, “it is a nightmare, just too terribly persuasive, it gives me the jim-jams”.
Prentice would happily publish More Pricks Than Kicks as it stood, with the original 10 stories: it came out on May 24th, 1934. Beckett told Thomas McGreevy, in a letter of December 6th, 1933, that Prentice’s rejection 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”. He then wrote a poem of five lines called Echo’s Bones and retained the title for a book of his poems published in 1935.
He never made any further attempt to publish the story called Echo’s Bones. It was slightly awkward, in any case, that it involved the same Belacqua, surprisingly alive, despite the fact that he had died on an operating table in Yellow, the penultimate story of More Pricks Than Kicks.
Dream of Fair to Middling Women lay unpublished until 1992, when it appeared, handsomely edited by Eoin O’Brien and Edith Fournier. Echo’s Bones is now published for the first time, 80 years late.
The title of the story comes from Ovid. In the third book of Metamorphoses he tells how Juno punished the nymph Echo – a chatterbox, a nuisance – by depriving her of the power of speech; she can only repeat the final words of others. Echo, going from bad to worse, falls in love with the beautiful youth Narcissus, who is infatuated with his own reflection in a pool and has eyes for nothing else. Humiliated by Narcissus’s rejection, Echo withers away into nothing but bones and a nearly useless voice. These go their separate ways. Her bones turn into stone, her voice alone remains. Not that Beckett troubles himself much with Ovid’s story. He glances at it from time to time, mainly to deny the voice any prestige.
The story is divided into three episodes, “this fagpiece, this little triptych”. In the first, Belacqua, “up and about in the dust of the world”, smoking cigars and waiting to see what comes next in the way of expiation, is ravished by Zaborovna Privet, a prostitute. Meanwhile, the narrator, or the narrative voice, interposes flurries of words between the characters, such as they are, and whatever is supposedly going on. As here on Zaborovna: “So astute in some matters, so crass in others, so crass-astute in as many again, intruding like a flea her loose familiarities into the most retired places, how can she ever expect, as she does, to excel?”
In the second episode of Echo’s Bones, Belacqua meets the giant Haemo Lord Gall of Wormwood, on the golf course apparently, who persuades him to “go into” Lady Gall in hope of having her give birth to a son, an issue legally imperative to prevent Wormwood from falling into the hands of the villain Baron Extravas.
Anticipating failure, Belacqua borrows a distinction from St Augustine and tells Lord Gall that as well as being continent he must be sustinant, “that is, titter affliction out of existence”. Meanwhile, Belacqua and His Lordship engage in a joust of rhetoric, mostly in the high droll style appropriate to farce.
The third episode rescues from the story Draff in More Pricks Than Kicks the groundsman who was there without a name but full of function, “a slow shy slob of a man with a dripping moustache”, now named Mick Doyle and engaged with Belacqua in smashing open a coffin, for no clear reason except to keep an argument going and to pass “the long night of knock-about”.
At the end Doyle is transformed, endowed with the myth for which he is obviously destined, but not so Belacqua: “Doyle kneeled on the lip of the excavation and lowered the lantern. Suddenly he was Adam that good old man, trembling with loyalty and constant service, though no sympathetic metamorphosis we regret to say was evinced by Belacqua, who sniffed and said: ‘Do you smell the tubers?’ ”
“So it goes with the world,” the story ends, but not before Doyle, “in a chaos of spirit”, tore open the sepulchral jar and “drained in a frenzy its cordial contents, essence of flecked pupil of women adored in secret, and went away”.
The moral of the triptych, so far as I deduce it, is that the next life will probably resemble this one. There is one story and one story only. Mick Doyle has the better part of it. He tries to tell Belacqua what in particular he is disgusted with: “ ‘How shall I say,’ said Doyle. ‘Shall I say with the eccentricities of your conversation, your buckled discourse? You must be rotten through and through to fly out of your own system the way you do. Stick to the point, honour your father, your mother and Goethe. Do I make myself at all clear?’ ”
Well said. I don’t see what made Prentice shudder. I would praise Echo’s Bones in the words with which Belacqua applauded one of Lord Gall’s sentences: “Very nice,” he said, “witty but not vulgar, clean fun, a rare thing in this age. In a vision, did you say?”
Mark Nixon’s annotations are gratifyingly helpful, except once where he appears to attribute to Dean Inge a famous line from Richard Crashaw’s The Flaming Heart.