SOMEWHERE, in an alternate universe, “Echo’s Bones” was published as the final story in Samuel Beckett’s first story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks. Widely appreciated for its witty allusiveness, “Echo’s Bones” made Beckett’s name as a writer, and he went on to publish many more works in the same vein: chatty, obscure dialogues in which the existence of the characters seems to them to be established only by their blather. In this universe, Waiting for Godotdoes exist, but as a massively long novel that culminates with the arrival of Godot in a flaming chariot, surrounded by angels spouting quotations from post-Cartesian philosophers. (N.B.: In this universe, Beckett’s mentor James Joyce lives to be 90 and produces several more works after Finnegans Wake, each one more involved and complicated than the last.)
In our universe, on the other hand, “Echo’s Bones” was rejected by the publisher who requested it, and More Pricks Than Kickswent on to a very modest success. Beckett himself grew impatient with the clotted style of his early works, and he switched to French as the best way to escape completely from the habits of English prose. It was these works, written in a sparse, anonymous French, that made him famous in the 1950s. Which is not to say that the rejection of “Echo’s Bones” was some kind of epiphany for Beckett, or a major turning point in his life. It was just one of many events that helped to make our universe what it is, one in which Samuel Beckett is the definitive example of mid-20th-century literature.
More Pricks Than Kickswas itself resurrected from the slaughtered remains of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Beckett’s first novel, rejected by publishers left and right, and thus unseen by readers until the early 1990s. When the 27-year-old Beckett was asked by Charles Prentice at Chatto & Windus for another story to fill out the rather slight More Pricks, he went back to his notebooks for the novel, and to More Pricksitself, and pulled together another adventure for his hero, Belacqua Shuah. The only obstacle to this strategy was that Belacqua had died in the penultimate story of the collection. Rather than rewrite the entire story, Beckett began “Echo’s Bones” by cursing his hero with the worst of all possible fates, a new life. Belacqua, it turns out, has not fully atoned for the original sin of being born, and so he is dragged back into existence to spend another 13,000 or 14,000 words trying to find the magic spell that will free him, once and for all, from the prison of earthly life.
What follows is rather like a demented version of A Christmas Carol. A spiritual miser like Scrooge, Belacqua is visited by three figures, not ghosts exactly but characters whose antics violate the ordinary laws of time and space, and whose rhetoric exceeds the bounds of ordinary sense. The first of these, Zaborovna Privet, is another in the chorus line of women who attempt to do something with Belacqua in More Pricks, and indeed some of these reappear, along with several other characters from the earlier stories, doing a sort of dance of the dead in the background as Zaborovna and Belacqua spar. The second apparition, like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present, is a giant, Lord Gall of Wormwood, who also attempts to seduce Belacqua back into life, only in this case by asking him to produce an heir with Gall’s syphilitic wife. Finally, Beckett finishes with his own version of the graveyard scene in A Christmas Carol, as the groundsman left alone at the end of More Pricksroots up Belacqua’s grave with the help of the one who should be inside it.
Needless to say, Belacqua is not redeemed, and he does not rush out to buy a Christmas goose. In fact, his preoccupation with his own grave causes him to miss a possible rendezvous with a submarine full of former friends and lovers, who leave him behind in disgust. “So it goes in the world” is Beckett’s final verdict on this scene, as it was to be on the final scene of More Pricks. But the fault does not really seem to lie with the world as much as it does with Belacqua himself, whose moody narcissism gives a title to the story. Named for the paragon of indolence in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Belacqua mopes his way through the 10 stories of More Pricksplus this one, trying to find the exit from an existence that just goes on and on, even after death. But Belacqua is too neutral, too uncommitted, even to die properly.
It is this sense of a life in which emptiness creates a kind of positive pressure, preventing its collapse, that makes “Echo’s Bones” prophetic of the great works that were to follow it. “My life, my life, now I speak of it as something over, now as a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?” Whatever it is, it is the non-tense in which Beckett’s best works are written, and Belacqua Shuah, subject to the indignity of a life after death that is nothing more or less than the same dull life before, is its first protagonist. He cannot move either forward or backward, because there is no real solution to the puzzle as Beckett sees it: consciousness is a colossal mistake, a fault in the continuum of dumb existence, but there is no way to heal the wound, because even passive acceptance involves some minimal use of consciousness, thus prolonging the agony. The writer’s version of this paradox is the requirement that even injunctions to silence must be written down, or, even if they are silently voiced, they still violate the silence.
As of 1933, when “Echo’s Bones” was written, Beckett had not solved the practical problem of how to fill the pages when the goal of the action is stasis, and the aspiration of the style is toward no words at all. The great novels — Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable— get around this problem by postulating a shadowy authority that forces the characters to account for themselves. But the genius of these novels, and of the great plays of the same period, is to make the rhetorical wheel-spinning of the characters seem as inevitable as it is superfluous. Beckett found his own economy by creating characters so sparing that they almost disappear altogether, and who are so very plain in diction that these works are probably the only real examples of truly successful translation. Against this background, the occasional twist in the vocabulary stands out all the more effectively.
As of 1933, though, Beckett’s taste for recondite terms still produces the kind of sentences that will later drive auto-correct insane: “Gnaeni, the pranic bleb, is far from being a mandrake.” One of the things the characters seem intermittently to try to teach Belacqua is the virtue of plain, ordinary language. “‘Cut out the style’ shouted Lord Gall, ‘how often must I tell you?’” And even Belacqua realizes that “Economy is the great thing now, from now till the end.” But Belacqua does not always match his indolent actions with laconic speech, and the story itself seems to abhor a vacuum so thoroughly that it constant erupts in little spurts of manic description, sometimes involving the quick appearance in the wings of whole phalanxes of characters who have no real role in the action, like the supernumeraries in a Verdi opera.
As a result, “Echo’s Bones” resembles Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, started in 1932, rather more than it does Molloy. There is the same odd balance of stalled-out characters with gaudy, gothic rhetoric, the same assemblage of emblematic tableaux, and the same rather talky yearning after annihilation. These similarities are reminders of the atmosphere in which Beckett wrote his story, the atmosphere of Parisian Surrealism, especially as it was distilled in the journal transition, which published some of Beckett’s early work. Certain moments in the story — the submarine that surfaces somehow on the edge of the graveyard, the “rogue ostrich” that appears as the mount of Lord Gall — make the sort of sense they do only in the context of Surrealism. Beckett may have learned from the Surrealists how brilliant a non sequitur can be, but at this stage in its development, Surrealism represented an aesthetic of excess and sensory overload, which made a rather uncomfortable match with the quietistic doubts of Belacqua. So there is one kind of Surrealism in the story, when Lord Gall slings Belacqua over his shoulder and lifts him up into some sort of penthouse in the trees, and another, much finer kind, when Belacqua is bent over his own grave, wondering what they will find in the coffin.
So, A Christmas Carol, as written in the style of Djuna Barnes. It must have been quite a jolt for the editor Charles Prentice to receive this twisted response to his innocent request for another story. And yet, his letters back to Beckett are so kind, so generous, and so unbendingly negative that they have set the standard for all later reviews. Would Prentice have relented if he had had the benefit, as we do, of Mark Nixon’s learned and informative notes? Probably not, but they are, for Beckett enthusiasts, one reason for owning this book, since they tell a lot about Beckett’s intellectual preoccupations at this time: St. Augustine; Charles Darwin; Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy; the history of onanism. Several stretches of the story become more understandable, if not exactly more comprehensible, when one knows that Beckett was reading deeply into Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, then just published. Beckett himself never allowed this story to be resurrected, as he did in the case of other early works. With that and the notes in mind, it might be better, even for the Beckett completist, to think of this as an interesting book about Beckett rather than an indifferent one by him.