Book of the Month Club: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett, c. 1950. Source: Rex Features/SIPA/OZKOK. Samuel Beckett, c. 1950. Source: Rex Features/SIPA/OZKOK.

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.

So begins Samuel Beckett’s short story, “Echo’s Bones”, intended as the finale for the early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks. Rejected by the publisher as confusing and depressing enough as to decrease sales, it remained a typescript, neat, narrow margins, “Sam Beckett” inscribed on the top left corner, dotted and underlined. Celebrating its eightieth anniversary last year, Beckett’s literary estate and Faber and Faber (coincidentally, the same publisher as fellow writer/sparring buddy T. S. Eliot) have dusted off this work and given it the scholarship treatment it deserves. It is annotated and edited by Mark Nixon to show the full power of Beckett’s literary allusions, including a couple aimed at the aforementioned sparring buddy.

Samuel Beckett.

Samuel Beckett.

Samuel Beckett’s (1906-1989) writings span almost a century, with works in English, French, and German; notable works include Murphy (novel, 1938), “En attendant Godot/Waiting for Godot” (theatre, 1952/3), and Worstward Ho (novella, 1983). A close friend of fellow Irish writer James Joyce, Beckett helped establish the modernist literary tradition as well as the absurdist movement.

As a story, “Echo’s Bones” is everything Beckett’s editor accuses it to be: it is disjointed, depressing, and confusing. Perhaps it might have decreased sales, as his editor wrote. Death and decay overshadow most of the work. Yet that is if one looks at it one way. In another, it is a humorous work and a vision of things to come. Belacqua, the protagonist of Beckett’s early writings, is resurrected after dying in a previous short story that was in the collection. It follows him through three disjointed segments: the first being an encounter shortly after his resurrection with the prostitute Miss Privet; the second, an attempt to (forcibly) surrogate an heir for Lord Gall; the third, Belacqua perched atop his own grave, his resurrection finished, almost finished, as he watches another character rob his grave, only to find stones.

“Echo’s Bones” is a very dense text, and at times feels forced. Therein lays no surprise: Beckett himself felt More Pricks Than Kicks was more of a sell-out to mainstream writing, according to Nixon’s introduction. At some points, the writing just drags on, as if Beckett is trying to fill a word quota (and indeed, he is: 5000-10000 words, according to his publisher’s request/estimate). In its denseness, however, comes the literary richness inherent with Beckett’s writing, with almost half of the little book a dedicated to unraveling the Bible passages, classic literature, and wordplay entangled in the prose.

While I used to prefer Beckett’s theatrical works (Godot in particular), “Echo’s Bones” has somewhat turned that opinion around: it is just as entertaining. On a surface level, crude, yes. But it is more than that. It is both human and humorous. Most of all, it is the portrait of an emerging writer at a crossroads, between tradition and modernity. So it goes in the world.