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Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett, Faber, RRP£20, 128 pages
Samuel Beckett, with his quizzically peering gaze and handsome, hawk-like appearance, has long been the academic’s pin-up. Beneath those craggy looks, though, was an unsmiling hermit and theologian of doom. Over his 60-year writing career Beckett created a gallery of tramps, waifs and other “crotchety moribunds”, as he called them.
Echo’s Bones, written in 1933, was intended by Beckett to form the 11th and final story (or “fagpiece”) for his early collection of interlinked fictions, More Pricks Than Kicks, published to mixed reviews in 1934. Beckett’s editor at the time, Charles Prentice at Chatto & Windus, rejected the story for being too bizarre and discomfiting. “It is a nightmare ... It gives me the jim-jams.” Prentice did everything he could to soften the blow; the story exuded a “wild unfathomable energy” but it was not right, he said, for Chatto’s list.
Prentice’s rejection seemed an intimation of the literary scrap heap. Two years later in 1936, his pride and young ambition badly dented, the young Beckett wrote to the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein stating his ambition to work under him in Moscow. This ambition was never realised and Beckett wondered if he should train instead as an airline pilot. Following his rejection by “Shatton & Windup” (as he rebaptised Chatto & Windus) he began to suffer from panic attacks and underwent psychoanalysis at London’s Tavistock Clinic.
The story, 13,500 words in length, has remained hidden from the public for 80 years. In 1962, Beckett gave the typescript to the American critic Lawrence Harvey, who deposited it in a New Hampshire archive. It wasn’t until recently that Edward Beckett, the writer’s nephew and executor, sanctioned publication, hailing it as an “important text”. A giddy banquet of literary borrowings and farcical grotesquerie, Echo’s Bones is distinctly minor Beckett. Still it would be a mistake to consign it to the pastures of the literary bagatelle. Mark Nixon, director of the Beckett International Foundation, says in his fine introduction that the story is a “vital document” providing a link between the Joyce-influenced early Beckett and the bleak lyricism of late Beckett.
Nothing much happens in the story, which features a madcap assortment of mandrakes, ostriches, mushrooms and even a celestial submarine. Belacqua, the hard drinking, Gorgonzola-eating Dublin student of More Pricks Than Kicks, dies after surgery in hospital. In Echo’s Bones he is resurrected and returned to life in a Dantean underworld peopled by freakish shades, among them a prostitute named Zaborovna and a fairytale giant, Lord Gall of Wormwood, who wears a tasselled red tarboosh. Flights of Wildean repartee (“I came, I sat down, I went away”) alternate with a Joycean ornateness of prose (“a fully grown androgyne of tempestuous loveliness”).
The author of Echo’s Bones had yet to find his voice. But the novella nevertheless contains in embryo Beckett’s whole extraordinary world of comic dread and Dürer-like imagination. The book is strictly for Godotistas, but well worth the wait.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage)