Samuel Beckett, thanks to the line containing the words "fail better", is enjoying a new and unlikely half-life among captains of industry, tennis players and motivators (amusingly, Richard Branson, acknowledging the quote's primary authorship, said "from the playwright, Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly"). "Fail better" came from a late work, Worstward Ho, one of the very last things Beckett wrote; dense, spare, language stripped to the bones, and if anyone quoting its most famous line has read it all the way through I will eat my hat. His short story "Echo's Bones", published now for the first time since its composition in 1933 is, in a way, one of the very first things he wrote. Which raises the question: is it a failure? That is: a worse failure than what came after it?
Beckett had form when it came to not allowing the reprinting of early works, but in the cases of Mercier and Camier (in prose, but Godot in utero) and "First Love" he relented; his highly protective estate let through, eventually, the pre‑Godot play Eleutheria and the 1932 novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women; but not "Echo's Bones", until now. The exclusion of this story from the public record has been a matter of some frustration for Beckett fans (although academics who asked nicely have been able to have a peek). The general reader might feel more ambivalent. This was certainly the original reaction to the volume of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks, first published in 1934, in which this story was to have appeared: featuring the adventures, amorous and otherwise, of a slothful, troubled, indeed cripplingly intelligent young Dublin man called Belacqua, the collection achieved near-universal indifference – although it did, for a while, manage to disgruntle some of the people who appeared in it, lightly fictionalised. ("Seventeen copies sold, of which 11 at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known," says Krapp in the play bearing his name some two decades later, finely balancing sarcasm and delusion.)
Charles Prentice, Beckett's editor at Chatto and Windus (or "Shatton and Windup", as Beckett called them in his correspondence), had asked him to bulk out the book with an extra story – the penultimate one had ended with Belacqua's death, the final one, "Draff", with its aftermath among the living – so Beckett obliged with "Echo's Bones". Prentice, who seems to have been an intelligent and sympathetic man, recoiled from the story, and decided to print the collection as it had originally been conceived. "It is a nightmare," began his letter in which he apologetically rejected the story. "People will shudder and be puzzled and confused; and they won't be keen on analysing the shudder."
It is important not to be hard on Prentice. For one thing, he stuck by Beckett's work, and wrote kindly and encouragingly when the sales figures came in; he wasn't to know that Beckett was to become one of the most garlanded, respected and, in certain corners, fiercely loved author of the 20th century. (Incidentally, a copy of the first edition of More Pricks Than Kicks, with dust-jacket, will set you back about £37,500.) We know Beckett's literary style now; in 1933, only a tiny number of people did. "A definite fresh talent at work," said the TLS; "though it is a talent not yet quite sure of itself." (Beckett's Molloy would later wrap himself in its pages and note its impermeability to farts, but the critic's words, if hackneyed, are not unfair or untrue. Which may have been one reason they stung.) The style of More Pricks may be some way from that of his later works, but it's not a world away. Late Beckett might look very different to early Beckett, but there is a clear progression to be seen; and always, there is his extremely close attention to the words he uses. Consider the justly celebrated conclusion to the story "Dante and the Lobster", in which Belacqua realises, with horror, that lobsters (in 1930s Dublin at least) were cooked by being boiled alive:
"Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.
It is not."
That is funny, but it is the grimmest humour; one is not going to mistake it for – to pick another book published in 1934 – Thank You, Jeeves. The stories in Beckett's themed collection (it's almost a novel) abound in literary reference, clotted locutions, liftings from other languages; the very title of the first story warns you that you had better have some Dante under your belt before you begin.
Which is not, though, affectation. Belacqua himself was named after Dante's lute-maker in Purgatory, idle in life, idle – heroically so – in the afterlife, but the only person in the entire Commedia who gets a smile out of the otherwise agelastic Florentine. And, as we get to the end of the sequence of stories, we confirm that what had been flagged from the beginning, that death – as fact and as idea, and what happens after death – is much on Beckett's mind. (It's also there in the juxtaposition, in the quote given above, of "quick" and "death" – "quick" being, of course, another word for "alive".)
"Echo's Bones", we are not necessarily surprised to learn, begins in a kind of afterlife, or perhaps afterdeath: "Say what you will, you can't keep a dead mind down," he writes earlier in Pricks. "The dead die hard," is how "Echo's Bones" begins, and here is Belacqua, "who now found himself up and about in the dust of the world, back at his old games on the dim spot"; "sat double on a fence like a casse-poitrine", smoking a Romeo and Juliet and wondering whether "if he had been cremated rather than inhumed directly he would have been less likely to revisit the vomit". He tries to imagine his remains – or, as Beckett puts it, "to conceive of his exuviae" – "as preserved in an urn or other receptacle in some kind person's sanctum or as drifting about like a cloud of randy pollen, but somehow he could not quite bring it off, this simple little flight."
You begin to see how his editor might have started dabbing his forehead. Readers would have been able then to connect the vomit with that which dogs are said to return to, "exuviae" is easily inferrable from context, and "randy pollen" is wonderful; but would many have known that "caisse-poitrine" is not only the French phrase for "rot-gut", as in cheap booze, but also – as the footnotes helpfully tell us – slang for "the active partner in homosexual fellatio"? Which adds another unhelpful, from a propriety-respecting viewpoint, layer of meaning to "bring it off".
The annotations to "Echo's Bones" take up more pages in the volume than the story itself, and even though they verge at times on the over-assiduous – I knew, thank you, that a Romeo and Juliet was a cigar – you can't help wondering how much you might have missed without a similar approach to the rest of his work, highly allusive as it is, especially this early stuff, which parades its author's learning a little too much.
But "Echo's Bones" is itself almost insanely allusive, even in comparison to Beckett's other works. Belacqua's purgatorial round is described almost purely in terms of references to Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Hamlet, Augustine's Confessions, On the Origin of Species, Dr P Garnier's rather splendidly titled Onanisme seul et à deux, the Bible, and anything else he happened to be reading at the time. "I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of [into it]," he wrote shortly after its rejection; and how. To summarise the plot, barely: our resurrected Belacqua is first accosted by a prostitute called Zabarovna Privet, then the infertile Lord Gall of Wormwood, and finally, as his own headstone, the groundsman/gravedigger Doyle (who, the text tells us, had appeared unnamed in "Draff", the final story in Pricks). Location changes dreamlike, at whim; we are either in a mushroomy field in gorgeous countryside, or a Parisian room, or by a seashore or a graveyard. It is deliberately arbitrary, the idea clearly being to renounce completely the very idea of narrative causation. As Beckett said earlier in his essay on Joyce's Finnegans Wake, "his writing is not about something; it is that something itself".
What saves this from being little more than a previously roped-off plot in which scholars and students can now fossick excitedly is that one of the elements that Beckett could never resist was humour. The density of "Echo's Bones" may be mind-bending at times, but we are never far from a joke, either in the form of a bit of snappy dialogue from Belacqua or his interlocutors, or as a spark generated by the pressure Beckett puts his language under. "'My ideas!' exclaimed Belacqua. 'Really, my Lord, you forget that I am a postwar degenerate. We have our faults, but ideas is not one of them.'" (That "is" I particularly like.)
Also, just because Beckett wrote in a manner that fenced itself fiercely off from conventional style, it doesn't mean he couldn't write in a manner that would be the envy of any writer in the land. "Night fell like a lid" is a sentence that arrests with its simple finality. But Beckett always took care to undermine such moments. "Cut out the style" shouts Lord Gall. "How often must I tell you?" when Belacqua starts describing the scene in too-flowery language.
So this is a wonderful curiosity, which points, teasingly, both towards and away from Beckett's development. Its appearance does nothing to diminish his reputation; quite the opposite. "Echo's Bones" may have proved a stylistic dead end, but Beckett knew better than anyone how to learn from failure.