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!”
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