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Portrait of the artist as a young fan: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

A previously unpublished novella shows the playwright struggling to escape the influence of Joyce. 

French connection: Samuel Beckett photographed in Paris, 1960. He met Joyce on his first visit to France in 1928. Photo: Lufti Ozkok/Rex/Sipa

The year 1933 marked a low point in the life of the nascent Irish writer Samuel Beckett. On 3 May, while he was in Dublin undergoing a painful operation to remove a cyst from his neck, news came that his first cousin and first real love, Peggy Sinclair, had died in Germany, of tuberculosis, at the age of 22. Less than two months later, on 22 June, his father, Bill, suffered a heart attack; he died on 26 June, his last words worthy of one of his son’s interminably expiring narrators: “What a morning!”

Peggy had figured in Beckett’s Dream of Fair to middling Women as the character Smeraldina-Rima and would appear again in the short-story collection More Pricks than Kicks. In the former, he had provided a portrait of her at once exuberant, enraptured and eerily prophetic:

So she had been, sad and still, without limbs or paps in a great stillness of body, that summer evening in the green isle when first she heaved his soul from its hinges; as quiet as a tree, column of quiet. Pinus puella quondam fuit. Alas fuit! So he would always have her be, rapt, like the spirit of a troubadour, casting no shade, herself shade.

Peggy had drifted out of his amorous ken – at the time of her death she was engaged to be married to another – but his father, who was only 61 when his heart gave out, had been one of the few rocks against which the increasingly nerve-racked young man could lean for loving support. “I can’t write about him,” he wrote in his bereavement, “I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.” In a poem begun in the shadow of that summer’s catastrophe, “Malacoda”, an early title for which was “The Undertaker’s Man”, Beckett speaks with palpable horror of this frightful figure, “impassible behind his scutal bowler”, coming “to coffin/with assistant ungulata”. From earliest days Beckett was one well acquainted with last things.

In 1933 Beckett was 27 and adrift. After working as a schoolmaster in Belfast – imagine the mixed blessing of having Samuel Beckett as a teacher – he had gone to Paris in 1928 to take up a position as lecteur in English at the exclusive École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm. During his two years in Paris he was, if not happy, certainly happier than he had been in Dublin. He made friends, learned to drink, consorted with girls and, most momentously, was introduced to James Joyce.

He revered the author of Ulysses and sought to emulate him, going so far as to wear shoes that were too narrow for him and holding his cigarette in the way that Joyce did. He insisted, however, that at the time he did not intend to be a writer: “That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching.” He performed one significant writing task, however, translating into French the Anna Livia Plurabelle section from what would become Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; significant, but hampering, too, for it would take him a long, hard time to drag himself out from under the master’s influence and arrive at what his character Krapp describes as “that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing” and it became clear to him at last “that the dark I have always struggled to keep under” was in fact for him the way of light that would lead to artistic triumph.

That triumph was still a long way off. In 1930 he had returned from his first stay in Paris and begun work as a lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin. Once more he was living at home and caught fast in the grip of his mother’s “savage love”: where Bill had been a rock of support, May Beckett was, if not a millstone, an immovable force at the centre of her son’s life, and he spent the first half of it resisting her influence and the second half mourning her loss. As he later said, he was what that savage love of hers had made him.

At Cooldrinagh, the family home in the leafy suburb of Foxrock, he quickly subsided into a troubled but irresistible indolence: “Today I am sitting by the fire listening to the rain and the trees and feeling ideally stupid.” In college, things were no better: “The eternally invariable formulae of cheap quip and semi-obscene entirely contemptible potin [French: “idle gossip”] in the Common Room Club.” He was turning into Oblomov, the nickname his future lover Peggy Guggenheim conferred on him.

She might more aptly have called him Belacqua, the Florentine lute-maker who in Dante’s Purgatorio sits in affectless dejection in the shade of a boulder, having abandoned all hope of getting to heaven. Beckett gave the name to the protagonist, if that is the word, of the stories in More Pricks than Kicks, which he had begun writing after his failure to find a publisher for his first novel, Dream of Fair to middling Women, “the chest into which I threw my wild thoughts”, as he later described it; many of the stories are sections lifted straight out of that novel, some of them almost verbatim. We encounter Belacqua Shuah at the start of the opening story, “Dante and the Lobster”:

It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward. Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him. She shewed him in the first place where he was at fault, then she put up her own explanation. She had it from God, therefore he could rely on its being accurate in every particular.

Among the publishers to whom he had sent the Dream, and who had rejected it, was Chatto & Windus – or “Shatton and Windup”, as Beckett preferred to call it in his more resentful moments – whose senior partner, Charles Prentice, had returned the manuscript more in sorrow than dislike. Indeed, Prentice had written of certain sections of the book, “You’re at your best there, right away from Joyce, and on your own, and the beauty and precision of the language moved me from the feet up.”

In Damned to Fame, his magnificent bio­graphy of Beckett, James Knowlson makes a point of giving Prentice his due, pointing out that he was undoubtedly “the first commercial publisher to ‘discover’ Samuel Beckett”. Prentice, a Scot, was a classical scholar and one of those rare figures to be encountered in the world of publishing – a true enthusiast for books, and even for their authors. Richard Aldington wrote of him: “He was unmarried, and in spite of his amiable qualities rather a lonely man, living in lodgings in Earls Terrace, Kensington, in a chaos of books, boxes of cigars, wines and pictures by Wyndham Lewis.”

This Pickwickian figure, whom Beckett had met and liked, was to prove a friend to the young writer’s early work, publishing his book-length essay of 1930 on Proust and, in 1934, More Pricks than Kicks. He had to let Beckett drop from the Chatto list in the mid-1930s, a matter on which Knowlson is sympathetic, pointing out that it is “difficult for a publisher who is running a commercial firm to persist with an author when few readers are buying his books”. In this context one recalls that rueful passage in Krapp’s Last Tape in which the hapless Krapp, apparently a writer, reflects on his sales figures: “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.”

In September 1933 Beckett assembled the ten stories he had accumulated so far into a volume, to which he gave the catchy title Draff (dregs, the refuse of malt after brewing), and sent it off to Prentice. On 25 September Prentice wrote to say that Chatto would publish the book. However, he asked for a change of title, and also he felt that at 60,000 words it was a little too short: might it be possible to have another story to bulk it out? At this time Beckett was staying with his lately widowed mother in a small holiday cottage in the pleasant village of Dalkey on the coast south of Dublin – what a fraught ménage that must have been – and at once he set to work on what would become Echo’s Bones, a title he took from Ovid.

Following his father’s death, Beckett’s already precarious health had worsened dramatically. His heart had “started its jigs again”, he was suffering from night sweats and panic attacks (for a time he slept in his brother’s room in an effort to assuage his terrors) and also he had another cyst, this one in his palm, which resisted treatment. In late August he was knocked off his motorbike by a car and injured his right arm and hip. There was worse to come. “I’ll tell you how it was,” Knowlson reports him saying. “I was walking down Dawson Street [in Dublin]. And I felt I couldn’t go on. It was a strange experience I can’t really describe. I found I couldn’t go on moving. So I went into the nearest pub and got a drink just to stay still. And I felt I needed help.”

These were the circumstances, and state of mind, in which he wrote “Echo’s Bones”, a “fagpiece”, as he called it. The story is a highly peculiar phantasmagoria – the editor, Mark Nixon, restrainedly describes it as “enigmatic” – in which Belacqua, whom his creator had already killed off, is resurrected to embark on adventures even more bizarre than those recounted in the preceding stories. The plot (the “plot”) involves a prostitute called Zaborovna Privet, the issueless Lord Gall of Wormwood who urges Belacqua to consort with Lady Gall, in the hope of providing him with an heir (there will be a child, but a girl child, alas), a gardener called Doyle and, briefly, one of Belacqua’s old flames, the Alba.

The story is, Nixon writes, “without doubt, more densely allusive, more Joyce­an, than any of Beckett’s other early writings”. He goes on to say that it is, as its title implies, made up of echoes but quotes the Beckett scholar John Pilling’s observation that there are so many echoes “they seem to multiply to infinity, and yet they are little more than the bare bones of material without any overarching purpose to animate” them. This is certainly true. Yet the fact is, there are no criteria by which to make a definitive critical assessment of the story, because it is entirely sui generis. Most readers will find it tiresome or infuriating or both. In it we see Beckett the late-modernist offering homage to his overweening exemplar James Joyce and at the same time twisting and thrashing as he tries to fly the Joycean nets and become his own man. In the end, it is as a part of the record of this struggle that Echo’s Bones is of interest.

Charles Prentice, when he read the story, was appalled. His letter of rejection is a testament not only to his literary wisdom but also to his kindness. “Echo’s Bones”, he wrote, gave him “the jim-jams”. It would, he was 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.” Beckett was crestfallen; the rejection of the story, “into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of, discouraged me profoundly”. It was, however, another milestone along the hard road to freedom from Joycean omnivorousness and towards that point at which, as Beckett said, he could let the darkness in, and become the master of those deprivations and decrepitudes out of which he would whittle his bleak masterworks.

The story exists as a typescript and a carbon copy, the former held at the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the latter in the A J Leventhal Collection of the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin. The Dartmouth text contains all Beckett’s corrections and additions and is the one used in this first, Faber edition. As is often the case with the late publication of prentice (no pun intended) work by a great writer, the story itself is dwarfed by the critical apparatus surrounding it. However, Nixon’s annotations are a wonder and make up a kind of parallel text that is in its way more fascinating, and certainly more enlightening, than the story the intricacies of which it aims to unravel. This volume is a masterpiece of scholarship.

After Charles Prentice’s rejection of the story Beckett abandoned it, wisely, but not before distilling out of it a wonderful little poem to which he gave the same title, a fragment at once tender, nasty, vulgar and heartbroken, that points unmistakably towards the future:

asylum under my tread all this day.
their muffled revels as the flesh falls
breaking without fear or favour wind
the gantelope of sense and nonsense run
taken by the maggots for what they are

John Banville is a Man Booker Prize-winning novelist. His latest book (written as Benjamin Black) is “The Black-Eyed Blonde” (Mantle, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge