Here’s a fact that’s either very surprising or not surprising at all: Samuel Beckett didn’t want his letters to see the light of day. He once wrote to Barney Rosset that he didn’t care for “the ventilation of private documents.” Despite this disinclination, his third volume of letters comes out this week, and it includes, as detailed by John Banville in a review for The Irish Times, a letter in which Beckett asks that none of his plays be produced in Ireland. Pair with: our own Matt Seidel on Beckett’s “Echo’s Bones.”
In Samuel Beckett’s previously unpublished “Echo’s Bones,” we find a deceased character, Belacqua Shuah, dragged back to something resembling life: a fitting subject for a story that itself has been dragged back from the dead 80 years after its rejection by a British publisher. Before attending to the unearthing of this macabre tale, a brief anecdote about another story of Beckett’s that was only half-rejected by a French publisher.
In 1946, “The End,” Beckett’s first extended composition in French, was accepted by Les Temps modernes, the review started by Jean-Paul Sartre. Or rather, the first half of the story was accepted. Beckett was under the assumption that the second half would be published in a subsequent issue, but Simone de Beauvoir, one of the editors, balked, never having been informed that the submission was part of a larger work. And so “The End,” would appear without its ending, prompting him to write a pleading letter to de Beauvoir:
…it is quite impossible for me to escape from the duty I have towards one of my creatures. Forgive these grand words. If I feared ridicule, I would stay silent…You allow me to speak only to cut me off before my voice has time to mean something. You halt an existence before it can have the least achievement. This is the stuff of nightmares…
These “grand words” are instructive about Beckett’s oeuvre for two reasons. First, they emphasize the structured nature of Beckett’s seemingly improvised, contingent beings. Though doomed to persist in a seemingly meaningless void over “vast tracts of time” (How It Is), his creatures undergo a meticulous, stage-managed devolution.
Second, Beckett’s earnest avowal of his authorial duty towards his characters counterbalances the ironic stance towards them usually adopted in his works. In Endgame, Hamm, aghast, asks Clov: “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?” In The Unnameable, the typically dyspeptic narrator refers to all those characters with whom he has “wasted” his time as “bran-drips.” And the old man in Krapp’s Last Tape listens to tape recordings made in his middle age: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.”
No one is tougher on a Beckett character than Beckett, and perhaps no character receives as much abuse as the first major one, Belacqua Shuah. (Alas, the firstborn always gets the worst of it.) Belacqua is the namesake of the slothful Florentine lute maker whom Dante finds sitting in “embryonic repose,” head resting on his knees and too lazy to ascend Mount Purgatory. He first appears as the protagonist of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the novel unpublished during Beckett’s lifetime. Midway through, the narrator announces that “We picked Belacqua for the job and now we find that he is not able for it.”
After failing to find Dream a publisher, Beckett repurposed some of the novel’s material into a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, featuring the “impossible” and impossibly learned Belacqua, an “indolent bourgeois poltroon” with a “strong weakness for oxymoron.”
In 1933, Charles Prentice, editor of Chatto & Windus (or as Beckett would call them, Shat-on and Wind-up) agreed to publish these 10 Belacqua stories, but he suggested to Beckett that it would benefit from adding another 5,000- or 10,000-word tale. There was one problem: the protagonist had died in the collection’s penultimate story, “Yellow,” during an operation to have a tumor on the back of his neck removed. Rather than work an earlier story into the chronology, Beckett chose to reanimate Belacqua, granting him a “new lease on apathy” (to borrow a phrase from “Yellow”).
Prentice was initially optimistic, writing Beckett that he was “delighted that Belacqua Lazarus will we walking again shortly.” After receiving the manuscript, however, and reading Belacqua’s surreal and densely allusive account of his afterlife, Prentice sent Beckett a mortified rejection letter saying the story gave him the “jim-jams” and asking if they could publish the story collection in its original form: “This is a dreadful debacle — on my part, not on yours…Yet the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me.”
(“Icy touch of those revenant fingers” — they don’t write rejection letters like they used to.)
Was Prentice correct in thinking More Pricks Than Kicks would be better off without the final story? Yes. And yet I concur with the assessment of one character in “Echo’s Bones” who tells Belacqua that “saving a slight tendency to overwork the figure…you phrase your ideas with distinction I should say.” Early Beckett couldn’t be summed up better.
“Echo’s Bones,” opens thusly:
The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.
The first, punchy clause sounds like a hard-boiled detective novel, before the sentence lays out the elements that will haunt Beckett’s fiction for the rest of his career: a purgatorial state of waiting in the muck for something to arrive — some person, sign, the magic words or a merciful death — to arrive and end what the Unnameable describes as the “long sin against the silence.” Like many declining characters that would follow him, Belacqua finds himself in a “tedious process of extinction.”
“Echo’s Bones” is the story of three disturbances in Belacqua’s “beatitude of sloth.” Awaking after his demise only to be shuttled to and fro, he is right to complain that being a ghost “has claimed so much of my time that I sometimes wonder whether death is not the greatest swindle of modern times.” Belacqua is repeatedly snatched or otherwise beset upon as a kind of payment for the “debt of nature” he owes from not having led a particularly virtuous life. However, Belacqua seems less interested in atoning for his sins than in protesting against these violent interruptions, which prevent him from his ideal of “sedendo et quiescendo” (sitting down and being quiet): “But this, this rape, this contempt of his person, this violation of his postliminy, really it was not to be endured.”
We first see him resting atop a fence before being approached by a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet, who lures a reluctant Belacqua to her home, where he is “ravished” out of her clutches at the precise moment he is about to ravished by her.
Now comes the fun part. Belacqua is transported to the edge of Wormwood, the large estate of the giant Lord Gall, where he is hit by an errant “long putt” in the coccyx, “that little known funny bone of amativeness.” Lord Gall is an impotent, “aspermatic colossus” in danger of losing his estate unless Belacqua can be convinced to impregnate his wife and thereby give him an heir. Lord Gall straps Belacqua on his back and climbs a massive tree to the his majestic aerie, after which they engage in all sorts of philosophical and innuendo-laden discussions, enjoy a rough slide back down through a trap-door in the trunk (“Vaseline omnia vincit”) and are met by a “rogue ostrich,” Strauss, who “simply waltzes along, never hesitates” and delivers Belacqua to Lady Gall’s bedchamber.
(Was the colossal Lord Gall in Beckett’s thoughts when, years later, he would give the young Andre the Giant rides to school in his truck?)
In the last section, Belacqua finds perched top his own grave, where he chats with and eventually aids a bodysnatching groundskeeper trying to dig up his coffin. References to Hamlet and the New Testament are strewn about as freely as Belacqua blithely ignores a submarine of departing souls lingering offshore.
This description perhaps makes the 50-page tale sound more engaging than it is. The best of the stories from More Pricks Than Kicks are not coincidentally the shortest. Belacqua is after all a comic grotesque (as are most of his companions), a character best served in brief, inspired flights of fancy — a clumsily executed suicide pact in “Love and Lethe” or the rapturous toasting of sandwich bread and the negotiation over the rottenest piece of Gorgonzola to be had in Dublin in “Dante and the Lobster.”
“Echo’s Bones” is an extended flight of fancy into which Beckett admitted to putting all he knew: Dante, Ovid, St. Augustine, Darwin, Goethe, Burton, Rimbaud, the Brothers Grimm, and more. The Beckett scholar Mark Nixon is an able guide, tracking down every reference in an “Annotations” section nearly as long as the story itself. Some of these provide a lively payoff. When Belacqua asks Lord Gall if his wife would “sink or swim in Diana’s well,” Nixon takes us to an explanation found in Robert Burton: “Diana’s well, in which maids did swim, whores were drowned.” (Lady Gall swims). Other recondite references don’t reward the page-flipping as handsomely.
The following decades would see Beckett gradually moving away from Joycean allusiveness and towards what he described as a more impoverished style radically different than the one on display here. However, amidst the cacophony, the faint stirrings of that move can be heard in “Echo’s Bones”: “Economy is the great thing now, from now on till the end.”
Out this week: Friendship by Emily Gould; God Is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster; How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer; The Actress by Amy Sohn; Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert; The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob; Three Light-Years by Andrea Canobbio; The Sacred River by Wendy Wallace; The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil; and a previously unpublished short story by Samuel Beckett.