‘Lost’ Samuel Beckett story 'Echo's Bones' sees the light after rejection in 1934

People will shudder …and won’t be keen on analysing the shudder

A previously unpublished short story by Samuel Beckett, rejected as a “nightmare” by his editor, will go on sale for the first time next month, 80 years after it was written.

'Echo’s Bones', a 13,500-word work, was commissioned as the final piece for his early collection More Pricks Than Kicks, but in 1934 was rejected by editor Charles Prentice, who said it gave him “the jim-jams”.

It features Belacqua Shuah, the protagonist of the collection of interrelated stories, returning from the grave, and remained hidden in archives since it was rejected.

In a blunt rejection letter to the young Beckett, published in the introduction of the new version, Prentice wrote: “It is a nightmare… It gives me the jim-jams… There are chunks with it I don’t connect with. I am so sorry to feel like this.”

The new volume, published by Faber & Faber on 17 April, features an introduction by Dr Mark Nixon, director of the Beckett International Foundation and a reader in modern literature at the University of Reading.

“On first reading, one cannot help sympathise with Prentice’s decision to reject the story,” he writes. “But if the story is rather wild and undisciplined it is also quite brilliantly so…

“Blending fairy tales, gothic dreams and classical myth, 'Echo’s Bones' is in parts a fantastical story replete with giants, tree-houses, mandrakes, ostriches and mushrooms, drawing on a tradition of folklore as popularised by WB Yeats and the Brothers Grimm.” 

In correspondence with a friend, Beckett said the “kicking out” of the work “into which I put all I knew… discouraged me profoundly”.

The Irish writer of Waiting for Godot, who received the Nobel prize for literature in 1969 and died in 1989, had been asked by Prentice to add another story to More Pricks Than Kicks. 'Echo’s Bones', which would have been the 11th and last story in the collection, picks up the tale of Belacqua, the protagonist of the ninth story, Yellow, who has just died after surgery in hospital.

But in his rejection letter, Prentice said he feared the extra tale would “lose the book a great many readers”.

“People will shudder and be puzzled and confused, and they won’t be keen on analysing the shudder. I am certain that 'Echo’s Bones' would depress the sales very considerably,” he wrote, and More Pricks Than Kicks was published in its original form.

Dr Nixon believes the rejection inspired Beckett to write a poem of the same name, and to use the title again for his first collection of poems, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, published in 1935.

More Pricks Than Kicks was Beckett’s first published full-length book, and contains extracts from his earlier work Dream of Fair to Middling Woman, which was also rejected by publishers.

Arifa Akbar: Bones of an aesthetic starting to blossom

So is 'Echo’s Bones' a “nightmare” that confounds its readers, as Samuel Beckett’s publisher claimed?

For all its literary worth – mock heroism, echoes of Dante’s Divine Comedy and strong use of dialogue – it certainly sits at odds with the short-story collection it was meant for. Bizarrely, Beckett brought his protagonist, Belacqua Shuah, back from the dead after having spent the last two stories in the collection killing him.

Is it a significant contribution to Beckett’s oeuvre? Just as Jack Kerouac’s The Haunted Life, an early work recently published for the first time, revealed his development as a young writer, so Echo’s Bones does the same for Beckett.

We see clear signs of the features that will blossom into Beckett’s distinct aesthetic: the existential angst and the dialogue in which neither party is making any genuine contact. Best of all, the absurdist humour, mixed with despair.

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