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A previously unpublished novella shows the playwright struggling to escape the influence of Joyce.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