Samuel Beckett — Echo’s Bones (1934)

Today, 13 April, would have been Samuel Beckett’s birthday. Back in 2006, on the centenary of his birth, I was fortunate enough to be at Reading University — home of the Beckett International Collection — and it was under those circumstances that my relationship with the work of one of the 20th Century’s most interesting and influential writers began.

I like to mark Beckett’s birthday in some small way: whether it’s reading a couple of the poems or watching something from the excellent Beckett on Film collection. This year, however, there was something a bit special on offer: the recent publication of ‘Echo’s Bones’, a short story written in 1934 and heretofore unpublished. Beckett wrote the ~13,500 word story at the request of his published Chatto & Windus, who were looking to add a final piece to the collection More Pricks Than Kicks to make the slim volume a more substantial offering. The piece that Beckett turned in was rejected as ‘a nightmare’ that ‘would depress the sales very considerably’, and it has existed for the last 80 years in the form of a single typescript and one carbon copy.

As part of its excellent work on the Beckett catalogue since the centenary Faber & Faber this month published the story in a hardback edition. The text itself is dense, allusive, and difficult, and suffers from the odd predicament of having a protagonist whom Beckett had killed off in the final story of More Pricks Than Kicks. Even with the benefit of hindsight (and thus knowledge of the work Beckett would go on to write and gain notoriety for) a modern reader sympathises with Charles Prentice of Chatto & Windus, who found himself rejecting a story that ‘gives me the jim-jams’.

Presented on its own, without the accompanying pieces of the collection it was intended to conclude, the text would likely be entirely impenetrable without the concise introduction and precise annotation it’s given here by editor Dr. Mark Nixon. As it happens Nixon was my Beckett tutor at Reading, and it was a pleasure to spend Beckett’s birthday not just with a text that was new to me, but benefitting once more from Mark’s guidance.