It’s a rare event when an unpublished work by Samuel Beckett is released. Echo’s Bones (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a short story, originally written for Beckett’s first collection, More Pricks than Kicks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) in 1933, when publisher Chatto & Windus felt the book was too short, at a mere 60,000 words. Echo’s Bones was meant to be the final story in the book, but on reading the manuscript, editor Charles Prentice wrote:
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. ‘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.
At 13,500 words, this is a long short story, and it takes up about 50 pages in this edition. The remainder of the book consists of an introduction, situating the text in Beckett’s oeuvre, and extensive notes to the story, discussing all the many allusions and references it contains; these notes are longer than the story itself. There is also a selection of letters to and from Beckett about the story.
I can’t say what this story is about. It brings back Belacqua Shuah, a character from other stories in More Pricks than Kicks, along with many other characters, in a phantasmagoric exploration of the former’s afterlife. Belacqua died in the penultimate story of the collection, Yellow.
I also confess that I got bleary-eyed reading Echo’s Bones. It is confusing, and the wordplay is as obscure as Joyce, but not as creative. It shows Beckett being derivative, imitating Joyce in style, but not in content.
Yet it starts with a powerful first paragraph that suggests what Beckett would write after World War II:
The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them. Then they are free among the dead by all means, then their troubles are over, their natural troubles. But the debt of nature, that scandalous post-obit on one’s own estate, can no more be discharged by the mere fact of kicking the bucket than descent can be made into the same stream twice. This is a true saying.
Early Beckett – the period from the 1930s through World War II – is a tough slog. His earliest novels, Murphy and Watt, are interesting, and funny, yet they aren’t easy reads, and are very different from the post-war works of austerity and bleak humor. They almost read like Thomas Pynchon, without the technological references, and are just as dense.
Echo’s Bones is for Beckett completists. If you’re not familiar with Beckett’s work, move along. Start with Waiting for Godot, Molloy or Stories and Texts for Nothing. If you’re a confirmed Beckett fan, you’ll want Echo’s Bones, but be aware that it’s not up to the standards of his later works.