Short story by Samuel Beckett published for first time

Echo’s Bones a relatively minor work, but it’s pungent early Beckett

Echo’s Bones is a relatively minor work, but it’s pungent early Beckett, written while he was still under the sway of his mentor, James Joyce. Photograph:  Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Echo’s Bones is a relatively minor work, but it’s pungent early Beckett, written while he was still under the sway of his mentor, James Joyce. Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images


When the British publisher Chatto & Windus agreed in 1933 to publish Samuel Beckett’s first book of fiction, a collection of 10 interrelated stories titled More Pricks Than Kicks, it asked him for one final story, a culminating wallop.

There was a problem. Beckett had killed off the book’s protagonist, a Dublin intellectual named Belacqua Shuah, in an earlier story. He had to be nonchalantly resurrected.

A second problem arose. Beckett’s editor at Chatto & Windus, Charles Prentice, found the new story Beckett delivered, Echo’s Bones, to resemble less a comely infant than a troubling heap of placenta and broken forceps.

“It is a nightmare,” Prentice wrote to Beckett. This was the start of one of the great rejection letters in literary history. “It gives me the jim-jams.” He declared: “People will shudder and be puzzled and confused.”

It’s not you, Prentice continued. It’s me. “I am sitting on the ground, and ashes are on my head.”

Eight decades later, Grove, Beckett’s stalwart American publisher, is issuing Echo’s Bones for the first time. This is a handsome book, and a well-padded one. The 49 pages of Beckett’s story are tucked, and nearly lost, inside acknowledgments, an introduction, a note on the text, a scan from the original typescript, a selection of letters from Prentice to Beckett, a bibliography and 57 pages of (excellent) annotations from this volume’s editor, Mark Nixon.

It’s worth cleaving this oyster to get at the pearl. Echo’s Bones is a relatively minor work, but it’s pungent early Beckett, written while he was still under the sway of his mentor, James Joyce, but with a soundscape all its own: rude, surreal, death-haunted, sex-addled, dry as bone. It helps to have read More Pricks Than Kicks before consuming it, but the story stands on its own.

Its pleasures border on the painful; you will have to like the sound of breaking glass. You may wish to exclaim about Echo’s Bones, as Belacqua does about his re-emergence on earth, “My soul begins to be idly goaded and racked, all the old pains and aches of me soul-junk return!”

Soul-junk isn’t a bad term for Beckett’s prose here. Echo’s Bones, as Mr Nixon’s annotations make clear, is a magpie’s assortment of references, allusions and quotations, with nods to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Mozart, biographies, folklore, movies, popular songs. Set amid all this are cosmic stage directions of the sort we later became familiar with in Beckett. Here’s one: “Doyle ate dirt.”

Like a stage play, Echo’s Bones arrives in three acts. In the first, Belacqua is born again and kibitzes with a prostitute named Miss Zaborovna Privet. In the second, we meet a giant named Lord Gall of Wormwood, whose wife is infertile. (Belacqua’s sexual assistance may be required.) In the third, Belacqua sits on his own headstone - he is “post-obit,” Beckett says - and watches his grave being robbed.

These elements don’t cohere; they build to nothing; they’re like stairs that ascend directly into a ceiling. The story’s pleasures are real, however, and reside in Beckett’s full tilt, Devil-ready language. His paragraphs unfurl like parades, notations on life’s sick pageant.

Early in this story, an actual parade of sorts goes by, and it’s worth stopping to stand and watch. Here comes a “honeymoon unicorn”, a “Yogi milkman”, a “contortionist leprechaun”, a “caput of highly liberally educated ex-eunuchs”, an “Editor, of a Monthly masquerading as a Quarterly”, and a woman, “a splendid specimen of exophthalmic goitre, storming along, her nipples up her nose”. This mise en scène makes me feel I’ve been going to all the wrong holiday events.

Belacqua is no Casanova. Nothing could teach him, Beckett writes, “not to spit and dig for clotted mucus in the presence of ladies”. The presence of ladies warms Beckett’s prose, though. He scatters words and phrases like “wombbud,” “clitoridian croon”, “total impubescence”, “piercing vagitus”, “rosy pudency”.

Sexual slapstick is scattered as well. Belacqua “received such a stunning crack on his eminent coccyx, that little known funny bone of amativeness, that he all but swooned for joy,” Beckett writes. “Never had he experienced such a tingling sensation, it was like having one’s bottom skaterolled with knuckle-dusters.”

Belacqua’s body, like all of ours, is barely more than a “packet of entrails”. This story is most fully a reckoning with mortality, an anthology of death rattles. Even a cow that wanders past is ill not merely with rinderpest and “red-water” but with “contagious abortion”.

It’s not clear that Beckett wanted Echo’s Bones ever to see the light of day. He had opportunities, when More Pricks Than Kicks was published in later editions, to include it. He never did.

I’m not sorry to have it, however. It’s a punk’s manifesto (Beckett was 27 when he wrote it) that gets at why Beckett continues to matter. Harold Pinter put some of those reasons into a lemony sentence: “He’s not leading me up any garden, he’s not slipping me any wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy, he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not, he hasn’t got his hand over his heart.”

Beckett’s reputation in the popular mind has been de-spindled and defanged in recent years, thanks to the bumper sticker popularity of a few words he wrote. “Fail better,” for one. Its popularity prompted an essay in Slate subtitled “How Samuel Beckett became Silicon Valley’s life coach.” Another is “Dance first. Think later.”

“Echo’s Bones” returns Beckett the troublemaker. Like Belacqua himself, this story is a wide-awake delivery system for snot.

New York Times