In 1933, Chatto & Windus agreed to publish Samuel Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks, a collection of ten interrelated stories his first published work of fiction. At his editor's request, Beckett penned an additional story, "Echo's Bones", to serve as the final piece. However, he’d already killed off several of the characters including the protagonist, Belacqua throughout the book, and had to resurrect them from the dead. The story was politely rejected by his editor, as it was considered too imaginatively playful, too allusive, and too undisciplined qualities now recognized as quintessentially Beckett. As a result, "Echo's Bones" (not to be confused with the poem and collection of poems of the same title) remained unpublished until now, nearly eight decades later.
This little-known text is introduced by the preeminent Beckett scholar, Dr. Mark Nixon, who situates the work in terms of its biographical context and textual references, examining how it is a vital link in the evolution of Beckett's early work. Beckett confessed that he included "all I knew" in the story. It harnesses an immense range of subjects: science, philosophy, religion, literature; combining fairy tales, gothic dreams, and classical myth. This posthumous publication marks the unexpected and highly exciting return of a literary legend.
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Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), one of the leading literary and dramatic figures of the twentieth century, was born in Foxrock, Ireland and attended Trinity College in Dublin. In 1969, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and commended for having "transformed the destitution of man into his exaltation."
Mark Nixon is Reader in Modern Literature at the University of Reading, where he is also the Director of the Beckett International Foundation. He has published widely on Samuel Beckett's work, and is an editor of the Journal of Beckett Studies, a member of the editorial board of Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui, and Co-Director of the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. He is the current President of the Samuel Beckett Society.
From the Introduction by Mark Nixon:
On 25 September 1933, the London publishing house Chatto & Windus accepted Beckett’s collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, for publication. Writing to Beckett, Chatto’s editor Charles Prentice wondered whether Beckett could add another story, which would ‘help the book’ by bulking up the content. Beckett agreed, and proceeded to write what he called a ‘recessional story’ entitled ‘Echo’s Bones’, which was to conclude the collection. Within three days of receiving the story, however, Prentice on 13 November 1933 turned it down, arguing that the story was a ‘nightmare’ and ‘would depress the sales very considerably’. More Pricks Than Kicks was published on 24 May 1934 as Beckett had originally submitted it, with ten rather than eleven stories. Now, nearly 80 years after it was first written, the enigmatic ‘Echo’s Bones’ makes its first public appearance.
The failure of ‘Echo’s Bones’ to see the light of day in 1934 needs to be seen in the context of the young writer’s desperate struggle to get published in the early 1930s. In many respects, the story of ‘Echo’s Bones’ begins with Beckett’s first substantial piece of fiction, the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, written between May 1931 and July 1932. Encouraged by Chatto’s publication of his book on Marcel Proust ( Proust, 1931), Beckett submitted the novel to the publishers. On receiving it in the summer of 1932, however, Prentice politely called it ‘a strange thing’, praised those sections in which the writing was ‘right away from Joyce’, and then unsurprisingly rejected it (5 July 1932). As Prentice told the writer Richard Aldington, turning down Beckett’s first novel was ‘Perhaps a mistake; but it would have been an almost impossible thing to handle; we didn’t understand half of it ourselves’ (5 September 1932).
Over the next nine months, the book continued to confuse and alienate publishers. With rejection notices piling up around him, and with no steady income after resigning his lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, Beckett by the middle of 1933 must have realised that Dream was never going to be published (it only appeared posthumously in 1992), and subsequently turned his attention to assembling a set of short stories, some of which he had written as early as 1931.
With Dream unpublished, and with not enough stories to make up a solid collection that would interest a publisher (or ‘invite a publisher to wipe his arse with’, in his words), Beckett began to recycle material from the novel, salvaging those sections that could easily be integrated into or adapted to the shorter literary form. Thus for example the story ‘A Wet Night’, as it appears in More Pricks Than Kicks, is taken nearly verbatim from the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Beckett also pilfered material from ‘Dream’ Notebook, reading notes collated for the writing of the novel. This pragmatic approach also had, to Beckett’s mind, intellectual precedence, advocating in his essay on Proust ‘that most necessary, wholesome and monotonous plagiarism—the plagiarism of oneself’ (33).
By September 1933, Beckett had assembled ten stories amounting to roughly 60,000 words. After his failure to place his writing with publishers, Beckett was hardly confident that his collection would find favour, despite telling his friend Thomas MacGreevy in a letter of 7 September 1933, and referring to the first story of More Pricks Than Kicks, that ‘if people can read Saki they can read anything, even Dante & Lobster’ (qtd. in Pilling 1997, 99). Prentice must have agreed with this evaluation. In his letter of acceptance dated 25 September 1933, he asked whether Beckett could come up with a ‘livelier title’ to replace Draff (the name of the final story of More Pricks Than Kicks), adding ‘Hurray too if you manage that extra story’, which suggests that Beckett may have raised the issue of writing a further story should the publisher feel that the collection was on the short side. Thanking Beckett for the revised title, More Pricks Than Kicks, Prentice reiterated his belief that ‘another 10,000 words, or even 5,000 for that matter, would, I am certain, help the book’ (29 September 1933). Beckett, for various reasons, struggled to accommodate the request. As he told MacGreevy, part of the problem was that he had killed off the protagonist of the collection in the penultimate story, ‘Yellow’: ‘I have to do another story for More Pricks, Belacqua redivivus, and I’m as stupid as a goat’ (9 October 1933; LSB I, 167). The fact that Belacqua would have to be resurrected for the new final story was acknowledged by Prentice: ‘I’m delighted that Belacqua Lazarus will be walking again shortly’ (4 October 1933). By early November, Beckett confessed to MacGreevy that he was ‘grinding out the last yelps for C. & W.’ but was ‘having awful trouble’ with it (1 November 1933). Yet he must have succeeded in writing the story rather quickly after this, as Prentice acknowledged receipt of it on 10 November 1933, while also registering his surprise at its length of 13,500 words (‘What a big one!’). More importantly, the story as a whole completely confounded him, and in a long letter, phrased apologetically yet firmly, Prentice informed Beckett on 13 November that ‘Echo’s Bones’ was not suitable for publication; the letter is worth citing at length:
It is a nightmare. Just too terribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams. The same horrible and immediate switches of the focus, and the same wild unfathomable energy of the population. There are chunks I don’t connect with. I am so sorry to feel like this. Perhaps it is only over the details, and I may have a correct inkling of the main impression. I am sorry, for I hate to be dense, but I hope I am not altogether insensitive. ‘Echo’s Bones’ certainly did land on me with a wallop.
Do you mind if we leave it out of the book—that is, publish ‘More Pricks than Kicks’ in the original form in which you sent it in? Though it’s on the short side, we’ll still be able to price it at 7/6d. ‘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. I am certain that ‘Echo’s Bones’ would depress the sales very considerably.
I hate having to say this, as well as falling behind scratch myself, and I hope
you will forgive as far as you can. Please try to make allowances for us; the future of the book affects you as well.
This is a dreadful débâcle—on my part, not on yours, God save the mark. But I have to own up to it. A failure, a blind-spot, call it what I may. Yet the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me. I am sitting on the ground, and ashes are on my head.
Beckett’s response to this remarkable letter appears to have been tempered by acquiescence, although a possibly more honest reaction is found in a letter to MacGreevy written shortly afterward: ‘I haven’t been doing anything. Charles’s fouting a la porte [kicking out] of Echo’s Bones, the last story, into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of, discouraged me profoundly. . . . But no doubt he was right. I tell him so, therefore all that entre nous [between us]’ (6 December 1933; LSB I, 171). Indeed, the failure of the story provoked Beckett into writing a poem of the same name, and he subsequently used the title again for his first collection of poems, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935). And, although it would surely have been difficult for him to feel otherwise at the time, the writing of the story was not an entirely wasted effort, as he transferred material from ‘Echo’s Bones’ to a revised ending of ‘Draff’, and thus to More Pricks Than Kicks as a whole; Prentice (on 11 December 1933) praised ‘the new little bit at the end’, calling it ‘a decided improvement’.
On first reading ‘Echo’s Bones’, one cannot help but sympathise with Prentice’s decision to reject the story. As an early critic, Rubin Rabinowitz, summarised it: ‘the setting is unrealistic, the plot improbable, the characters bizarre’ (55). ‘Echo’s Bones’ is a difficult, at times obscure story, uneven in tone and mood and evasive in stating its business. It bristles with tensions that arise from its fragmented nature, its incessant intertextual borrowings, the way it shifts between different literary styles and its allusive, wayward language, none of which allow the story to coalesce into a unity, even of the ‘involuntary’ kind that characterised Dream of Fair to Middling Women. But if the story is rather wild and undisciplined, it is also quite brilliantly so, especially in the flaunting yet withholding of its ‘shabby mysteries’ (‘Draff’, 174). The imaginative playfulness mixes styles and sources, all of which gesture toward Joyce but ultimately establish something rather more distinctly Beckettian.
Beckett obviously struggled to write the story. His correspondence with MacGreevy testifies to the fact that his heart was not really in the book as a whole (‘But it is all jigsaw and I am not interested’), viewing More Pricks Than Kicks as a concession to the marketplace, and in terms of literary merit inferior to what he had tried to do with the novel Dream. Moreover, Beckett’s fee...
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