FICTION: A rediscovered short work from a 20th-century great about life and death is presented in the author’s truly inimitable style.
In 1933, 27-year-old Samuel Beckett was on the cusp of literary success. His first work of fiction, the short-story collection “More Pricks Than Kicks,” had just been snapped up by a major London publisher. At the behest of his editor, Charles Prentice, Beckett agreed to compose a final story. This was to prove tricky. Belacqua, his protagonist throughout the other stories, had been killed off. Beckett chose to resurrect him as a ghost for his 11th tale, “Echo’s Bones.”
This fantastical element, together with Beckett’s constant switches in style, led Prentice to turn down the story. Not only could he not connect with it, he also found it “a nightmare,” one that “gives me the jim-jams.” The story remained unpublished. Now, eight decades later, and 25 years after Beckett’s death, it finally sees the light of day.
The tragicomic story can be divided into three sections. In the first, Belacqua comes back from the dead and encounters a flamboyant prostitute called Zaborovna Privet. Even more larger-than-life is the giant Lord Gall of Wormwood in the second section, who — after informing Belacqua that he is infertile — beseeches him to help him become a father. The story plays out with Belacqua sitting on his headstone as Doyle, a “strange sexton,” plunders his grave.
“Echo’s Bones” consists of Beckett’s text and an introduction and notes by pre-eminent Beckett scholar Mark Nixon. Thanks to the latter we can understand better the former, and not feel as flummoxed as Prentice was. Readers normally balk at the sight of elucidatory notes that are longer and more detailed than the text they seek to decode, but in this case Nixon’s annotations are welcome, particularly as Beckett’s story is so richly — one could almost say densely — allusive. Beckett’s descriptions and dialogue are infused with biblical references and lines from Dante, St. Augustine and Shakespeare. We get fragments of fairy tales and shards of classical myths. Gothic dreams rub shoulders with sexual puns. Baroque linguistic flourishes counterpoise bouts of earthy Dublin vernacular. The end result is a kind of modernist collage reminiscent of Beckett’s idol, James Joyce.
Some of Beckett’s language hints at the greatness that was to come: “the lush-plush of womby-tomby” is ornamental yet graspable and introduces Beckett’s preoccupation with images of life and death. Elsewhere, sentences get tangled up in verbosity: “the Saint Paul’s skull gathered into ropy dundraoghaires and a seamless belcher, dangling to and fro that help to holy living a Schenectady putter, clad in amaranth caoutchouc cap-à-pie.”
We can use Nixon’s notes as lifelines or we can simply allow ourselves to be swept along by Beckett’s glorious rhythms, ideas and wordplay.
“Echo’s Bones,” like many a lost-and-found work from an old master, is more collector’s piece than masterpiece, but it is still a rewarding and stimulating read for lovers of language and artistic inventiveness.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh.