Tag Archives: Irish literature

“Echo’s bones were turned to stone”

Pros: some wordplay

Cons: plot, etc.


In 1933 Samuel Beckett (1906-89) wrote an additional (13,500-word) story for his 1934 collection of short fictions, More Kicks than Pricks. though he had killed off his alter ego and the protagonist/observer of the other stories, the Dublin slacker Belacqua Shuah (lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio Canto IV) in “Yellow,” the penultimate story of More Kicks than Pricks.

Eighty years later the 59-page piece was published by Grove Press “Echo’s Bones.” It runs only slightly more pages than that of apparatus, which includes 57 pages of annotations by Mark Nixon and Beckett’s correspondence with the book’s Chatto & Windus editor, Charles Prentice, who judged the story/novella a “nightmare” and predicted that any readers would “shudder and be puzzled and confused.” Prentice said it gave him “the jim-jams.”

Like Gaul, “Echo’s Bones” is comprised of three parts. In the first Belacqua is reborn and cavorts with a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet.. Next he meets Haemo Lord Gall of Wormwood, a giant whose aids in impregnating his giantess wife the giant seeks from Belacqua. (Without male issue, Wormwood would be inherited by the villainous Baron Extravas.)

In the final part, Belacqua watches his own grave being robbed in a “long night of knock-about”. “Echo’s Bones” goes nowhere, the three parts failing to cohere, let alone lead from one step to another. Dwight Garner in the Irish Times likened the story to an “anthology of death rattles” (an apt characterization of “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape”). The novella now a sort-of stand-alone book is literally “snotty.”

Echo, post-Narcissus, had a voice as well as bones. The voices in Beckett (here as elsewhere) are mostly male one.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Having quickly bogged down trying to reread Molloy, I have bumped Beckett down to the maybe clump in my second-guessing Nobel Prizes for literature.


Early Beckett

More Pricks Than Kicks, a 1932 collection of interrelated stories by future Nobel Prize laurete Samuel Beckett (1906-89) about a slacker cad named Belacqua Shuah, “descendant of the grand old Huguenot guts” (that is of a Protestant family as Beckett was) who is learning Italian working through Dante with a tutor (Vera Esposito). Belacqua no sense of obligation to anyone (least of all the three women he marries (sequentially), and has an exaggerated intolerance for being interrupted in anything, whether it is trying to write or in making toast.


1971 caricature by Edmund Valtman

Belacqua wants to move around to evade the Furies, but “being by nature sinfully indolent, bogged in indolence, [he] ask[ed] nothing better than to stay put.” There are many specific places in and around Dublin mentioned (none of which mean anything to me). The ten stories appear in chronological order, but are not tied together into a novel. They differ considerably in voice, though all but one tend to show off obscure vocabulary (ponderous pedantic pomposity is characterization of the style made by his biographer, Deidre Blair).

Belacqua is not an interesting (or a sympathetic) character and his opinions are desperately flippant. It is in this and in many characters being crippled that they most obviously connect to the pared-down dialogue of Beckett’s post-World War II plays. Both narrator and protagonist are sarcastic to and beyond the point of viciousness. In the first story, Belacqua expresses concern and sympathy for a lobster about to be boiled alive, but in later ones he is indifferent to the deaths of wives and a little girl who is run down… and fairly indifferent to his own prospective death.


The book was banned in Ireland on the basis of its title, which is especially ironic in that it is biblical, alluding to Acts 9:5 (“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”). The high-falutin’ diction insured against any popular success. The dialect (or at least phonetic spelling) in the brief “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux” made that story unreadable to me. The longer “A Wet Night” is barely readable. From Blair, I learned that these are the two “stories” that are most directly autobiographical recall. Apparently, Belacqua’s meeting a woman in a pub who is attempting to sell seats in heaven (“Ding Dong”) is also more memoir than fiction—and strikingly odd rather than just peculiar. It and “Dante and the Lobster” are the two stories that I find almost appealing. They are more bemused than bitter.

A comic intent is often obvious, but the touch is never light, and such heavy lifting makes the puns and jokes seem more pathetic than funny. (In “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett would later manage both simultaneously, but not in More Pricks Than Kicks. Some of the characters other than Belacqua are less enervated. (I’m tempted to say he is a “dead center” that other lives pass near and that he thinks orbit around him.) His main interest is as self-loathing portrait of Beckett as a young cad, reveling in his caddishness and playing with language. There is certainly no plot (with a partial exception in “Fingal”), and I would not say the vignettes are really “character-driven” either. I’d say they are driven by toying with language and a loathing for the self (author and protagonist), for his associates, and for Ireland in general.

If the 25-year-old Beckett was following the advice of James Joyce (whom he had served as a secretary) to “write what is in your blood and not what is in your brain,” his veins were running with venom and contempt. But I would say he was spewing what was in his brain.


More Pricks Than Kicks is in effect Beckett’s Dubliners and Beckett’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rolled into one inferior stew. Whereas both of the Joyce books are read for their own merits, not as earlier works by the author of Ulysses, More Pricks Than Kicks would be forgotten and long out-of-print on its own merits, and is in-print as the point of departure (from the specific location of Dublin) of Beckett’s oeuvre.


I really don’t understand why I persisted in reading all ten stories, when I am surrounded by some many books I want to read and expect to enjoy more! An ingrained valuing of finishing whatever I start, I think. I could only recommend the collection to those interested in analyzing self-hatred in a particularly Irish style or intent to trace the evolution of Beckett’s writing from polysyllabic overkill to nothingness (by way of what strikes me as his only masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” written first in French; I long ago read the trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable), or at least the first two volumes of it, but suspect that that, too, was an exercise in masochism rather than rapport or enjoyment.


©2006, Stephen O. Murray


Bloomdsday III: video tour of Joyce’s Dublin

Although I have read James Joyce’s Ulysses and recognize it as a canonical modernist work, I have no great affection for its very domesticated Dublin reflex of Homer’s Odyssey. This year’s celebration of Bloomsday, the June 16th of 1904 on which Joyce met his future wife, Nora, and the day on which he set the peregrinations of Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, the obvious and not as immediately obvious autobiographical characters in Ulysses, prompted me to get the DVD “James Joyce’s Dublin: The Ulysses Tour.”


In it the charmingly enthusiastic and a bit gawky curator of the James Joyce Museum, Robert Nicholson begins the day at the round tower of Sandycove, a dozen miles south of the center of Dublin, which is also where the novel begins with Stephen Daedalus fleeing, as Joyce had. Nicholson introduces the novel and his project of showing the places where events in the novel occurred (though the novel is more known for its attempts to capture interior consciousness than for its plots and succession of events).

For each chapter, following a very difficult to understand reading from the book by Terence Kileen (subtitles are not, alas, available, and Joyce can be difficult to understand even without trying to decode a strong Irish accent in low audio fidelity), Nicholson stands at a spot where Daedalus or Bloom was in that chapter. He tells about the location (many of the buildings are long gone, though the houses on the other side of the street from 7 Eccles Street, where the Blooms were placed and where Joyce had been are reasonable substitutes), the chapter’s style and happenings, and its inspiration in Homer.


(National Library of Ireland)

The DVD provides a good refresher on the book. I don’t think anyone who has not read the book would understand the greatness of the experiment that is the novel and might well wonder why anyone would make a Ulysses pilgrimage across Dublin.

The sites mostly have plaques so that visitors to Dublin can visit the sites Nicholson did in the imagined footsteps (and tram rides) of Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom. Glasnevin Cemetery is definitely still there, with the boulder inscribed “Parnell.” (Brendan Behan is also buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, btw.)

The documentary does not make me want to rush to Dublin, though if I were there, I would visit Nicholson’s museum and the National Gallery at the very least. The documentary may have stimulated me to reread the “Night town” chapter, but the Joyce that I’m rereading is not Ulysses but the far shorter and easier-to-read Exiles, which came between Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses — both chronologically in order of publication and in portraits of Joyce’s obsessions, notably being cuckolded by Nora figures.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray


James Joyce’s play “Exiles”

I am far from being the first reader to notice that there is a great deal that is autobiographical in the fiction of James Joyce. Stephen Daedalus in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses has many obvious similarities in temperament and experience with his creator. In the play that Joyce wrote between those two novels, Exiles (1915), the would-be writer who rejects Irish Catholic conventionalities is named Richard Rowhan.


Unlike Joyce, Richard has returned to Ireland with his (common-law?) wife Bertha, who like Nora Barnacle, a Galway girl, who had been a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, is from a Protestant background and an unsuitable match in class to boot.

Like Joyce and, later, Leopold Bloom, Richard is inordinately fascinated with being cuckolded. In both cases, the writer wanted to know what it felt like (an emotionally dangerous form of research), intellectually rejected possessiveness and felt jealous while reiterating the freedom of his partner.

Beyond those two motives for exploring sexual freedom/jealousy, as I reread Exiles, I had intimations of a suppressed homoerotic bond between Richard and his friend and champion, Robert Hand (based on Joyce’s pre-exile drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave, who are redeployed in Ulysses). These intimations are not entirely creatures of my imagination, because in notes on the play Joyce himself wrote that “the bodily possession of Bertha by Robert, repeated often, would certainly bring into almost carnal contact the two men.” Moreover, a sense of bonding of semen mixing in the same receptacle (or at least of having “carnal knowledge” of the same orifice) is not unprecedented.

And in addition to his pride being damaged by Bertha choosing Richard when she met both Richard and Robert, Robert seems to have some jealousy — or at least resentment — of Richard’s vision of himself as the Homer of the Irish “race” (embarking on writing a Dublin update of Homer’s Odyssey).

Bertha is not an intellectual like Richard, Robert, or Beatrice (Robert’s sister who is still carrying a torch for Richard and would have been a more suitable mate both in terms of social status and in the ability to understand Richard’s writing and, indeed, speaking). Joyce treats her mind as a region of mists, though he gives her complete sentences rather than the caroming fragments of Molly Bloom in Ulysses). Again in Joyce’s own notes, “Robert wishes Richard to use against him the weapons which social conventions and morals put in the hands of the husband. Richard refuses. Bertha wishes Richard to use those weapons in her defense. Richard refuses…” and has an erotic stimulation in imagining his best friend bedding his wife, however unjoyful such excitement is.

Reading the play as autobiography (which it would be very difficult to avoid doing), I wonder if Joyce realized how much he manipulated Nora and the various men he all but threw at her to test her and them (notably Cosgrave and Roberto Preziosa)… and himself.

Nora/Bertha differ significantly from Hedda Gabler, though Ibsen was clearly Joyce’s role model as a conventionality-defying playwright, as is well-documented, including correspondence with Ibsen himself. Joyce has his alter ego seemingly more in love with Nora’s than Ibsen has the artist who uses his wife in “When We Dead Awaken,” though having the grace to wonder if he (Richard) has ruined her (Bertha’s) life and innocent simplicity for his artistic/philosophical experiments in breaking the chains of conventionality (social here, artistic in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).

My guesstimate is that without cuts the play would run three to three-and-a-half hours, though cutting the first part of Act Three and much of the second part of Act One (both involving Archie, the son of Bertha and Richard) might make the length manageable. The characters are archetypes of Joyce’s private mythology of betrayal. Although they rattle on, the dialogue is more realistic than that in either Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses.

Exiles seems to me to be a key text, though one I rarely see or hear mentioned (less even than Stephen Hero, the first draft of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Joyce revisited Ireland in 1909, 1911, and 1912, but did not repatriate even after the establishment of an independent state. There is no certainty within Exiles that Richard will remain in Ireland, though it seems that Robert is going into exile after the return after nine years of Bertha and Richard

Turning one last time to Joyce’s notes, in regard to the play’s title: “Why the title Exiles? A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her payable on their return… [In the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son] the father took the side of the prodigal. This is probably not the way of the world—certainly not in Ireland.

Yeats rejected the play for the Abbey Theater, and it was not mounted by professionals until Harld Pinter directed it in London in 1970.


©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Edna O’Brien ‘splains Jame Joyce

The greatest living Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s (b 1930) brief (179 page) biography of James Joyce was aimed at people like me who are curious about Joyce’s life, but not curious enough to undertake Richard Ellman’s definitive but massive biography. O’Brien venerates Joyce’s writing, but recognizes the high cost to most everyone who had any contact with Joyce. As a vainglorious, insanely jealous, epically condescending, boozing spendthrift he does not strike me as a very good husband, but he was a worse son and father and brother, ruthlessly exploiting anyone he could, including various younger writers (the most notable of whom was Samuel Beckett) he enlisted as publicists and treated like serfs, and a series of patrons (one of whom, Miss Weaver, over time gave him what would be more than a million dollars in today’s currency) whom he hated for helping him but exercised cunning flattery to keep funds flowing his way.


There is certainly a sense in which the increasingly blind expatriate Irish writer was a martyr to his art. But weighing the price of his achievements against the human costs involves the hurt and misery he inflicted on others. Perhaps because she values the achievements more highly than I do (indeed, as “immeasurable”), she is more willing than I am to suggest that the result was worth the suffering inflected on others. In his treatment of his mother O’Brien justly calls him “monstrously indifferent” and I would extend that label to many of his other relationships, particularly with his son.

O’Brien does not attempt to defend Joyce from being viewed as a monster; instead, she answers her question “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do.” (I doubt that she is such a monster, though no doubt pilfering in the privacy of those she knows to stockpile material for her fictions.)

She does challenge the view that Joyce was misogynist. This despite noting that the young man chose as his confirmation name Aloysius, a Catholic saint who (like Mohammed Attah) feared any contact with women. O’Brien argues that “in all the stories [in Dubliners] the women, despite being victims attain a moral superiority,” and that after carrying off Nora Barnacle the women in his writings are “temptresses and sorceresses.” The idolization of primitive life force in those he considered s-l-u-t-s and idealization of asexual, indulgent patronesses seems to me a very familiar, very Catholic Madonna/w-h-o-r-e dichotomy with an unoriginal delight in pulling the madonnas down into the “filth” that is sex in this worldview. (I am not sure what O’Brien means in writing that “if he depicted women as sexually primitive he was more prescient than anyone before or since. It probably says more about her than about Joyce, but the “pre-” may be a cunning annulment of the seeming praise.)

After the celebration among the cognoscenti of Ulysses and letting Finnegan’s Wake loose on the world, the world was swallowed up by war (WWII). Joyce got out of occupied France and died in Switzerland. A problem of biography, even one so novelistic as O’Brien’s, is that the endings are often anti-climactic. In this instance, the climax was also smudged between the triumph of Ulysse and the dragged out excesses of Finnegan’s Wak. For me Ulysse pushes the boundaries of readability (I greatly doubt I could reread it and am not even sure I could read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a third time) and Finnegan’s Wakis far into gibberish.


O’Brien makes some sense out of Finnegan’s Wake and provides interesting responses to Joyce. Hard-core Joyceans will already have processed Ellman’s biography—regarded by some as the best biography of any writer ever written. The somewhat curious have a fine guide in O’Brien. She sometimes indulges in Joycean wordplay and some of her sentences lack verbs, but her book is generally readable, and I am inclined to trust her sense (as a novelist, as an Irish novelist) of what in Joyce’s fiction is autobiographical. (Very little is invented, but much amalgamates experiences and characteristics of multiple models).


The volume is an excellent match of biographer and subject, like Edmund White’s Marcel Proust that began the series of Penguin Brief Lives, a welcome antidote to the mountains of details that make so many biographies exhausting or too daunting to undertake.


©2002, 2018, Stephen O. Murray