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“Echo's Bones": Samuel Beckett's Lost Story of Afterlife

José Francisco Fernández


More Pricks than Kicks (1934), le premier livre de fiction publié par Samuel Beckett, a attiré l'attention des chercheurs presque dès sa parution. Les raisons ne manquent pas puisque le livre nous propose, en dix chapitres, un parcours pour la vie de Belacqua Shuah, le premier héros beckettien. Les chapitres se succèdent et tournent autour du rapport particulier que le protagoniste entretient avec les femmes et de son désir d'échapper aux tentations de la vie mondaine. Les deux derniers chapitres prennent une résonance singulière : Belacqua décède lors d'une opération chirurgicale puis il est enterré. Cependant, la mort du protagoniste ne signifie pas la fin de cette histoire extraordinaire. L'éditeur de Beckett lui a demandé d'ajouter un chapitre complémentaire "Echo's Bones" qu'il a finalement rejeté.

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Samuel Beckett
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1What until very recently was the terra incognita of Beckett studies, his early fiction of the 1930s, has been given a tremendous impulse in the last decade of the 20th century and in the first years of the 21st, thanks, among other things, to the publication in 1992 by Eoin O’Brien and Edith Fournier of Beckett’s first novel Dream of Fair to middling Women (written in 1932). Important scholarly works by John Pilling, such as Beckett before Godot (1997), have shed light on dark aspects of Beckett’s writing at this time, and naturally James Knowlson’s magnificient biography Damned to Fame (1996) has provided a reliable account of the author’s life during this obscure period.

2Recent scholarship has put much emphasis on Beckett’s readings as a young man, in an attempt to trace the sources of his creative imagination (Beckett’s Books, 2006, by Matthew Feldman, and Notes Diverse Holo, 2006, edited by Matthijs Engelberts and Everett C. Frost should be mentioned here). Beckett’s literary habits such as taking notes from every book that came to his hands and his “technique of distant echo and semi-allusion” (Ackerley, 16) when writing his first prose fictions, have also been the subject of much scrutiny.

3One of the pieces that remains to be studied in depth from this period is the case of his unpublished short story “Echo’s Bones” (1933), whose manuscript is kept at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. It is a story which tells much about Beckett’s ambitions as a writer, as well as informing about his personal turmoil just after his period at the École Normale Superieur in Paris. “Echo’s Bones” cannot be understood on its own, but it is necessary to relate it to the main texts where it comes from, the novel Dream of Fair to middling Women and the collection of short stories More Pricks than Kicks (1934).

4Dream… represents Beckett’s attempt to follow the steps of James Joyce with regard to all-inclusive linguistic exuberance. This novel sums up the main features of Beckett’s early work. In the opinion of John Pilling, it is ambitious, courageously experimental and too exotic to take root (Pattie, 51). What is interesting for the discussion of “Echo’s Bones” is that in this novel Belacqua, the first truly Beckettian hero, and the protagonist of the short story, appears for the first time. The character of Belacqua is taken from Dante’s Divina Commedia. He is one of the individuals found by Dante waiting in Antepurgatory. This is how Beckett, the student of Modern Languages at Trinity College Dublin, describes Belacqua in a notebook dated 1926:

and while they continue their discourse a voice addresses them, at which they turn, and find several spirits (I neglegenti) behind the rock, & amongst them one named Belacqua, a Florentine and known to Dante, & who tells that he is doomed to linger there outside the gates of Purgatory for a period the equivalent of his life on earth, on account of his having delayed his repentance to the last” (Engelberts, 45).

5Dream… is an extraordinary verbal artefact which draws attention to the way it is built by means of its erudite references, its games with the reader and its endless disquisitions, rather than to the narrative itself: “In Dream” writes John Pilling, “Beckett does what he can to disguise the fact that the novel is telling several stories over and above the ‘story’ which it is deliberately telling in a ramshackle manner” (1997, 70).

6Beckett sent the manuscript of his first novel to several publishing houses, but all of them rejected it on the grounds that it was unpublishable: “It took perhaps a year [between the summer of 1932 and 1933], a year ended by the death of his father [26 June 1933], for Beckett to recognise that Dream was doomed” (Pilling 1999, xx).

7During this period, which he spent in Dublin, although he had abandoned his career as an academic, he did not abandon writing. He took Belacqua again as his main character, but this time Beckett followed a more or less coherent progression in a reasonably realistic setting. The new adventures of Belacqua would make up the stories he was writing, and which would constitute the volume More Pricks than Kicks. The collection was accepted for publication in September 1933 by Chatto and Windus, and it consists of ten interconnected stories. Two of them, “A Wet Night” and “The Smeraldina’s Billet-Doux” were taken verbatim from Dream… As was characteristic in the novel, in the short stories Beckett’s Belacqua is a man of eccentric habits and difficult relationships with women. In More Pricks… he is seen in different everyday scenes: having an Italian lesson, going to a pub, attending a party, going for a ride to the mountains with his girlfriend, etc. But Belacqua is still very much his own man: the reader first gets a glimpse of this weird character through the eyes of a grocer in the opening story, “Dante and the Lobster”: “Being a warm and hearted human man he felt sympathy and pity for this queer customer [Belacqua] who always looked ill and dejected” (15). The reader also obtains more information on him by the reaction he provokes in other people, as when he enters a local pub in the story “Ding-Dong”: “Here he was known, in the sense that his grotesque exterior had long ceased to alienate the curates and make them giggle…” (43). His actions mark him as a peculiar type, someone who follows his own rules: in the story “Ding-Dong” he buys four seats in heaven from a mendicant woman; in “Love and Lethe” he plans a joint suicide with one of his girlfriends; in “Walking out” he is engaged into voyeuristic activities in the countryside. In the penultimate story, “Yellow”, Belacqua is in hospital to undergo minor surgery, although he dies at the operating theatre. In “Draff”, the last story of the collection, Belacqua is buried and his widow, the Smeraldina, begins a relationship with his best friend. The story (and the book) end with the sentence “So it goes in the world”.

8The collection, however, was not meant to finish at this point. When it was accepted for publication Beckett’s editor, Charles Prentice, suggested the addition of one more story in order to help with the selling of the book. Beckett then wrote “Echo’s Bones” in October 1933 while staying with his mother in a house by the sea near Dublin. But the story proved to be unpalatable for the editor’s taste. In a letter written on 13 November 1933 Prentice complained about “Echo’s Bones”:

It is a nightmare. Just too terribly persuasive […] the same horrible and immediate switches of the focus, and the same wild unfathomable energy of the population. ‘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 (Knowlson, 173).

9According to Rubin Rabinovitz “It is easy to imagine why Beckett’s editor – no doubt motivated by the best intentions – found the story objectionable. The setting is unrealistic, the plot improbable, the characters bizarre” (Rabinovitz, 55).

10Samuel Beckett had probably felt elated at the prospect of having his first volume of fiction published, and in “Echo’s Bones” he returned to the lush style of Dream…, probably feeling that he had been given permission to expand freely on his creative impulse. This might explain the disappointment that he felt when the new story was rejected so bluntly. He had returned to a style, unsatisfactory as it was in many ways because of the overwhelming influence of Joyce, that he had nevertheless conquered for himself and which allowed him to give vent to a feeling of self-pity and self-loathing. In a letter to his friend Thomas MacGreevy he expressed his bitterness at the rejection of “Echo’s Bones”. In this piece of fiction, Beckett wrote, he had put “all I know and plenty that I was better still aware of” (Pilling 1999, xxi). After the constrained and moderate tone of More Pricks…, in comparison with the vigorous ornamentation of Dream…, Beckett had poured much of himself into “Echo’s Bones” and that’s why this text is important for a clear picture of Beckett at this period.

11As has been said, instead of imagining a new episode in Belacqua’s life, Beckett chose to recount his after-death adventures. This procedure has its own logic. The original Belacqua, it will be remembered, is found by Dante waiting to be admitted into Purgatory, doing penance for his lack of initiative in saving his soul. The idea of a place and time outside the progress of history, where some kind of punishment is taking place, certainly appealed to Beckett. “On this earth that is Purgatory…” he wrote (Beckett 2006, 510). Even the tone of the stories in More Pricks… has been termed purgatorial: “Where we are, ever, in this story,” writes Robert Cochram about “Dante and the Lobster”, “and in the world Beckett will establish with increasing authority from here on out, is a purgatory verging on hell, a place of more pricks than kicks. This, then, is the basic situation, the given, a world chock-full of suffering and decline, slow decline” (8).

12In the last story of the collection, “Draff”, which deals with Belacqua’s burial, there are some hints towards a possible activity of Belacqua in an after life, an illusion cut short in the same paragraph in a characteristic self-mocking style: “Belacqua had often looked forward to meeting the girls, Lucy especially, [his third girlfriend, who appears in the sixth story, “Walking out”, and is run over by a car] hallowed and transfigured beyond the veil. What a hope! Death had already cured him of that naïvete” (195). Nothing in the stories of More Pricks…, however, foretells the wild content of “Echo’s Bones”, even though it represents a kind of coda to the collection. The story departs radically from the rest of the short fictions in the volume, both in terms of language used, and with regard to its plot. Besides, in “Echo’s Bones” Beckett enters briefly into a territory, that of the fairy tale, that he would never use again, which makes the piece more extraordinary.

  • 1 The page numbers of the story “Echo’s Bones” correspond to the typescript as can be found in Dartmo (...)

13The story of “Echo’s Bones”, as we know it today, is a typescript of 28 pages, thematically divided in three parts. In the first one Belacqua is back after his death to the world of the living, transformed into a ghost and feeling gloomy at being back. The narrator refers to “this tedious process of extinction”, or describes Belacqua “revisit(ing) the vomit” (1)1. The protagonist’s true ambition, we infer from the text, is something close to the achievement of nothingness: “In ‘Echo’s Bones’ Beckett’s hero yearns for the bliss of nonbeing, but he is forced to return to life because he made such a mess of it the first time around” (Rabinovitz, 57-58). If his imagination had perished, he thinks, that would be “a step in the right direction” (1). The narrator also transmits the idea that Belacqua is immersed in a cycle of life followed by death until he atones for his sins: “This is he and the position from which he ventures, to which he is even liable to return after the fiasco, in which he is installed for each dose of expiation of great strength, from which he is caught up each time a trifle better, dryer, less of a natural snob” (1).

  • 2 It should be remembered that both in Dream… and in More Pricks…women, with the exception of the Alb (...)

14He is sitting on a fence smoking a cigar when a woman, Zaborovna Privet, turns up, and shows an interest in him.2 After a conversation Belacqua follows the woman to her house where he is ravished by her, just as he was raped at the beginning of Dream… by his most consistent lover, the Smeraldina: “When it was his express intention, made clear in a hundred and one subtle delicate ways, to keep the whole thing pewer and above- bawd” (Dream…, 18).

15The second section (pages 7-19) begins with Belacqua being accosted by a giant, Lord Gall of Wormwood who, after introducing himself and asking for permission to call Belacqua Adeodatus, takes him by the hand, and they move onwards. At one point the colossus takes Belacqua on his shoulders and pushes him up a tree, in a scene reminiscent of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, setting himself and his guest in an aerie. There, Lord Gall confesses to Belacqua that he is unable to beget an heir, and that he fears his dominions will pass on to his rival, Baron Extravas. This aristocrat keeps a liaison with Lord Gall’s wife, to whom he has transmitted syphilis.

16The giant does not let Belacqua abandon the nest in the tree and keeps on drinking as the afternoon wears on. Belacqua is asked to look around Lord Gall’s possessions, including a castle in the distance. Before he is finally taken down on the ground Lord Gall asks him to lie with his wife and produce a boy for him. An ostrich called Strauss appears and Lord Gall and Belacqua ride on in towards their destiny. Belacqua carries out his duty with unusual enthusiasm on his part and Moll Gall, the giant’s wife, gives birth to a girl: “The episode, until now a blend of fairy tale, dream, and myth, ends as a shaggy-dog story” (Rabinovitz, 56).

17In section 3 (pages 19-28) Belacqua seems to be closer than before to his final aim of inhabiting the void, he seems to be in the last stages of his penance: “… Belacqua, at last on the threshold of total extinction as a free corpse, sat on his own headstone, drumming his heels irritably against the R.I.P.” (19). This time it is the cemetery groundsman who appeared in “Draff”, the last story of More Pricks…, now named Mick Doyle, who starts a conversation with Belacqua. The groundsman has come to the graveyard to snatch Belacqua’s recently buried corpse. At Belacqua’s exclamation that he is a body, Doyle says: “There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body” (20).

  • 3 According to the myth of Echo, told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Echo is punished for her talkativ (...)

18Belacqua bets Mick that he will not find anything in the tomb. Meanwhile dawn is approaching and both men continue their conversation until it becomes loud and angry. Finally Doyle and Belacqua proceed to open the coffin. It is the protagonist who has to split the wood with an axe, and who has to carry the groundsman’s lantern inside the grave. There is nothing there but a handful of stones.3 The groundsman goes away, the Alba, who has been watching the scene from the conning tower of a submarine also departs and the story finishes again with the words “So it goes in the world”.

19Rubin Rabinovitz has written authoritatively about the connection between “Echo’s Bones” and the stories that conform More Pricks than Kicks. The unpublished story is, in his opinion, an integral part of the collection: it synthesises Belacqua’s relations with women, it explicitly points to the reason for his behaviour (suppressed incestuous feelings), it offers the conclusion of this snob’s progress and presents a solution to the stories encrypted in the form of myth: “… without ‘Echo’s Bones’ an essential part of the novel’s complex structure is lost […] More Pricks than Kicks is subtle, intrincate, brilliant work; the removal of ‘Echo’s Bones’ has made it needlessly obscure” (Rabinovitz, 61).

20Although “Echo’s Bones” certainly continues with the adventures of Belacqua and offers useful insights for the interpretation of the whole sequence of stories, it is nevertheless true that it is very different from the pieces in More Pricks… both in the language used and in the topics dealt with. It is my contention that it is the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and not the stories in More Pricks… which constitutes the real source behind “Echo’s Bones”.

  • 4 In a telling episode from section “TWO” of Dream…Belacqua spends two months apart from everyone, al (...)

21In the first place, the imagery of the short story is similar to the atmosphere of solipsism that can be found in the novel. In some ways Beckett seems to continue the narrative where he had left it in Dream…4 Rabinovitz himself admits: “The Purgatory in “Echo’s Bones” resembles the inner world in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it also is called a ‘wombtomb’” (58). Beckett put into practice in “Echo’s Bones” what he had presented as a mere outline in Dream…, that is, the expansion of Belacqua’s darkest aspect of his personality, that which escaped the contradictions of his terrestrial being (active/passive; outward/inward) and which is summarized in the concept of “wombtomb”. This term can be interpreted both as an attitude and as a state of mind and it does appear in Dream… when Belacqua finds a release from the routine of life and can dive freely into his thoughts, as can be appreciated in the following excerpt:

The third being was the dark gulf, when the glare of the will and the hammer-strokes of the brain doomed outside to take flight from its quarry were expunged, the limbo and the wombtomb alive with the unanxious spirits of quiet celebration, where there was no conflict of flight and flow and Eros was as null as Anteros and Night had no daughters […] His third being was without axis or contour, its centre everywhere and periphery nowhere, an unsurveyed marsh of sloth. (120-121).

22In the novel only when his mind is drifting with no purpose does Belacqua achieve “a Limbo purged of desire” moving “with the shades of the dead and the dead-born and the never-to-be-born” (Dream…, 44), anticipating the oneiric landscape of “Echo’s Bones”. The references in the aforementioned passage to a state of liberation from the commands of desire and reason, the state of a carefree, unproblematic existence in a kind of atemporal realm, could well be an adequate description of Belacqua in “Echo’s Bones”. Therefore I think that with regards to the relation between More Pricks… and “Echo’s Bones” perhaps it is not so much a question of having an incomplete book of short stories, but more a question of having a single story that disrupts the whole sequence of More

23Pricks… “Echo’s Bones” belongs to a different kind of writing, it is set in a different mind-set and it brings a new tone to the previous stories, as Julie Campbell has written: “Although there are many funny moments in More Pricks…, “Echo’s Bones” treats death and purgatory with such a lightness – more so than anywhere else in Beckett – that it would perhaps have given the volume of stories too bathetic a conclusion” (Campbell, 456).

24Secondly, what can be called the experimental or non-realist features of the narrative are much more marked in “Echo’s Bones” than in the stories of More Pricks…, and this is exactly the field in which Dream… reigns supreme. Although the style in the stories of More Pricks… was defined at the time of its publication as “witty, extravagant and excessive” (Muir, 42), the picturesque adventures of Belacqua here make some kind of sense, and Belacqua himself makes a certain progression, from the naïve young man in the first story, “Dante and the Lobster”, to the individual who tries to devise methods in his mind in order to confront the idea of a hypothetical disaster when he is in hospital in “Yellow”. In More Pricks… he is, as David Pattie has written, “more a part of the world than any other Beckettian protagonist” (54). But in Dream… and in “Echo’s Bones” the author purposely rejects a coherent narrative structure and puts in its place the narrator’s textual games, as Ruby Cohn states: “Nowhere in the published Pricks is the narrator quite so ubiquitous as in the unpublished ‘Echo’s Bones’” (59). As a further connection between the novel and the short story, both participate in Beckett’s stylistic exuberance, elaborate remarks and disparaging digressions. Many of the obscure erudite quotations in “Echo’s Bones”, for instance, stem from the same sources as those informing Dream… To offer just one example, at a certain point Belacqua exclaims in “Echo’s Bones”: “ In this world […] which, as you know, is all temptation and commercial travelling…” (21), and this sentence is found in a similar form in Dream…: “This frail life that is all temptation and knighthood” (3). The origin of both sentences, as John Pilling points out in his Beckett’s Dream Notebook (86), lies in Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Just as Beckett inserted in Dream sentences he had taken from well-known authors (St. Augustine, Thomas Carlyle), and lesser-known ones (Pierre Garnier, J. G. Lockhart, Victor Bérard), he continued with this procedure in “Echo’s Bones”.

25“Echo’s Bones”, it can be said as a conclusion, is a valuable literary document. It shows the furthest Beckett went in his imitation of Joyce, a course of action that he would later abandon. It gives a clear picture of a young writer experimenting with new forms, such as the fairy-tale. With regard to the author’s personal life, it offers insights on a young author struggling with obsessions (like his unresolved conflict between his desire for women and his search for independence) that would accompany him in future works.

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Ackerley, C.J. Demented Particulars. The Annotated Murphy. Tallahassee: Journal of Beckett Studies Books, 2004.

Beckett, Samuel. Dante…Bruno. Vico..Joyce. In Samuel Beckett. The Grove Centenary Edition. Vol. IV. Poems, Short Fiction, Criticism. Ed. Paul Auster. New York: The Grove Press, 2006. 495-510.

---. More Pricks than Kicks. London: Calder & Boyars, 1970 (1934).

---. Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1992.

---. “Echo’s Bones”. Typescript B389/122, Beckett Collection. Baker Library. Dartmouth College: New Hampshire.

Beckett’s Dream Notebook. Reading: Beckett International Foundation, 1999.

Campbell, Julie. ‘“Echo’s Bones’ and Beckett’s Disembodied Voices”. Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 11. Samuel Beckett: Endlessness in the Year 2000/Fin sans Fin en l’an 2000. Eds. Angela Moorjani & Carola Veit. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 454-60.

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Cohn, Ruby. A Beckett Canon. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005 (2001).

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Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury, 1997 (1996).

Muir, Edwin. “More Pricks than Kicks” (Listener, 4 July 1934). Rpt. in Samuel Beckett. The Critical Heritage. Eds. Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman. London: Routledge, 1979. 42-43.

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Pilling, John. Beckett Before Godot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rabinovitz, Rubin. The Development of Samuel Beckett’s Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

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1 The page numbers of the story “Echo’s Bones” correspond to the typescript as can be found in Dartmouth College.

2 It should be remembered that both in Dream… and in More Pricks…women, with the exception of the Alba, always express an intense desire for Belacqua, who basically wants to be left alone. He seeks their company but abhors compromise and does not seem very keen on sexual contact. To the Smeraldina’s exasperation in Dream…, he tells her that he prefers to love her in the distance. In the story “Walking Out”, from More Pricks…, he even advices his fiancée to take a lover: “Time and again he had urged her to establish their married life on this solid basis of a cuckoldry” (110-111)

3 According to the myth of Echo, told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Echo is punished for her talkativeness and rejected by Narcissus, whom she loved. She shrinks and disappears physically until only her bones are left. The bones are later transformed into stones.

4 In a telling episode from section “TWO” of Dream…Belacqua spends two months apart from everyone, alone with his thoughts, mentally visiting a dark space which could be an apt description of the realm inhabited by the protagonist in “Echo’s Bones”: “The lids of the hard aching mind close, there is suddenly gloom in the mind; not sleep, not yet, nor dream, with its sweats and terrors, but a waking ultra-cerebral obscurity, thronged with grey angels; there is nothing of him left but the umbra of grave and womb where it is fitting that the spirits of his dead and his unborn should come abroad” (Dream…, 44).

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José Francisco Fernández, “"Echo's Bones": Samuel Beckett's Lost Story of Afterlife”, Journal of the Short Story in English, 52, Spring 2009, 115-124.

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José Francisco Fernández

José Francisco Fernández lectures English literature at the University of Almería (Spain). He has co-edited Irish Landscapes (University of Almería, 2003) and Contemporary Debates on the Short Story (Peter Lang, 2007). He is also one of the contributors to The Facts on File Companion to the British Short Story (Facts on File, 2007). He is particularly interested in the novels and short stories of Samuel Beckett and has published a variety of critical studies on Beckett’s early fiction.

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