Playwright and author Samuel Beckett, who died 25 years ago, wrote lasting works of literature like Waiting for Godot and Endgame. But a previously unpublished short story of his — now being released for the first time — was not so appreciated.
Echo's Bones, which follows a man who has just come back from the dead, was supposed to be the final story in Beckett's first-ever collection of stories. Editor Charles Prentice, who commissioned the story in 1933, described it this way: "It's a nightmare ... it gives me the jim-jams." Prentice refused to publish the story, cutting it from the collection.
Now readers can see what Prentice objected to: an obscure story that a review in The Telegraph describes as "really for specialists and masochists only."
Here's a sample sentence:
"To proceed, after what seemed to Belacqua countless as it were eructations into the Bayswater of Elysium, brash after brash of atonement for the wet impudence of an earthly state — the idea being of course that his heart, not his soul but his heart, drained and dried in this racking guttatim, should qualify at last as a plenum of fire for bliss immovable — he appears to us again and more or less in the familiar attitude all set for his extraordinary affair with the spado in tail, if such a curious animal can be said to exist."
Beckett scholar Mark Nixon, who edited the just-published version, talks to NPR's Kelly McEvers about the story behind the story and the work's relevance today.
On Beckett's life at the time
At this point in 1933, he's still struggling to make a name for himself as a literary author. And 1933 is generally a difficult year for Beckett, because his father passed away and he was struggling with various illnesses, so that's a little bit of the backdrop, of a background for the writing of the short story Echo's Bones. ...
Echo's Bones is kind of a crossover story between early Beckett and perhaps the Beckett that we all know from the post-war period.
On why the main character comes back from the dead
He had already finished the collection of stories which he had submitted to his publishers ... and they felt that it was a little bit on the short side, so they asked him to write another story. The problem was that Beckett had already killed off his main character of these stories, Belacqua, in the penultimate story. So he couldn't quite work out where to add another story, which is why he put it at the end and had to bring Belacqua back from the dead.
On the appeal of this work for the average reader
It's an extremely amusing and funny story. ... The interest of the general reader will just be how Beckett is maneuvering his way through so many different sources and different styles of writing — you know, everything from religious imagery all the way through to very bawdy type of writing. And I think that is something that readers will find interesting and also enjoyable.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Here is a sentence from the previously unpublished, newly released story called "Echo's Bones" by Samuel Beckett. (Reading) To proceed, after what seemed to Belacqua countless as it were eructations into the Bayswater of Elysium, brass after brass of atonement for the wet impudence of an earthly state - OK, you see what I'm doing here. Here is how reviewers are describing the story. (Reading) For specialists and masochists only. If you've never read Beckett before, starting here will likely put you off for life, and, it's a nightmare, it gives me the gym-jams. That last assessment is from his editor, who back in 1933 had commissioned the story but once he read it, refused to publish. So why bother with this obscure book by the man who wrote great works like "Waiting For Godot"? We put that question to the editor of "Echo's Bones," Beckett scholar Mark Nixon. He joined us from his echoey office. Professor Nixon, welcome to the show.
MARK NIXON: Well, Hi, thank you very much.
MCEVERS: First of all, I want to talk about the story itself. It sounds like it had a pretty interesting life. It was supposed to be the final story in Beckett's first ever collection of stories. This was very early in his career as a writer. Can you describe, you know, his life at that time?
NIXON: Well, this is 1933. Beckett was a completely unknown writer. He'd published a few short pieces here and there, especially in French literary magazines. But his first novel that he wrote, "Dream Of Fair To Middling Women," couldn't find a publisher. So at this point in 1933, he's still struggling to make a name for himself as a literary author. And 1933 is generally a difficult year for Beckett because his father passed away, and he was struggling with various illnesses. So that's a little bit of the backdrop, the background to the writing of the short story "Echo's Bones."
MCEVERS: So the story "Echo's Bones" follows the tale of a man who has just come back from the dead. Can you tell us a little bit about the actual narrative of the story?
NIXON: Well, the interesting thing is, of course, is that as you described in the introduction, you know, he thought he finished the collection of stories, which he had submitted to his publishers, Chatto and Windus. And they felt that it was a little bit on the short side, so they asked him to write another story. The problem was that Beckett had already killed off his main character of these stories, Belacqua, in the penultimate story. So he couldn't quite work out where to add another story, which is why he put it at the end and had to bring Belacqua back from the dead. And the merit of the story lies essentially in its - I don't know, in its experimental mode of writing. This is a writer who is very, very influenced by James Joyce and that very particular modernist style of writing. But Beckett was trying to find his own way at this time. So "Echo's Bones" is a kind of a crossover story between early Becketts and perhaps the Beckett that we all know from the postwar period.
MCEVERS: The book is full of these obscure references. I think one reviewer called it a puree of references, I think the footnotes are longer than the story itself. I mean, is this his homage to James Joyce?
NIXON: Well, that's one way of looking at it. You could say that it was perhaps his way of getting rid of all the material that he still had lying around in his notebooks, to try and free himself from the burden. He called it the burden of note snatching. So there is a sense in which perhaps he just wanted to get everything off his chest, and that's what he said to a friend after the story had been turned down. You know, he said that I've put everything I knew into this story. So you could see it as a homage to James Joyce's style of writing but also the way of purging himself of all of this material that he'd amassed over the previous years, knowing that he actually wants to go a different way, which he did of course. Instead of always adding to his work like Joyce did, he started then to subtract and take everything away and minimalize his writing.
MCEVERS: Right because the later writing is much more spare...
MCEVERS: ... The writing we're familiar with in things like, "Waiting for Gogot."
NIXON: Absolutely yes, I think "Echo's Bones" in thematically, but also in the shifts of register, does predict and anticipate the writing of the postwar years. There are already passages in "Echo's Bones" that show that he is trying to write, as he called it, without style, whilst at the same time finding it difficult to do so.
MCEVERS: So, I mean, I do have to ask, you know, it sounds like for a Beckett scholar, this is really fascinating but why - because it is an obscure work, why should a layperson read this book? When, you know...
NIXON: Well, I think it's a very good question, I think is a very personal question. But I think the feedback and also the reviews that have come in on the book and this is not just scholarly reviews of the book, have already shown that, you know, a general reader will find a lot of interest. Not only is, you know, the style of writing already, you know, extremely interesting, it's an extremely amusing and funny story, especially in the middle part with the exchanges between Belacqua and a character called Lord Gall. It's - the interest of the general reader will just be how Beckett is maneuvering his way through so many different sources and different styles of writing, you know, everything from religious imagery, all the way through to very bawdy kind of writing. And I think that is something that readers will find interesting and also enjoyable.
MCEVERS: That's Mark Nixon. He's editor of the newly published story by Samuel Beckett "Echo's Bones." It's out this week. Thanks so much Mark.
NIXON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.