More Pricks Than Kicks, a 1932 collection of interrelated stories by future Nobel Prize laurete Samuel Beckett (1906-89) about a slacker cad named Belacqua Shuah, “descendant of the grand old Huguenot guts” (that is of a Protestant family as Beckett was) who is learning Italian working through Dante with a tutor (Vera Esposito). Belacqua no sense of obligation to anyone (least of all the three women he marries (sequentially), and has an exaggerated intolerance for being interrupted in anything, whether it is trying to write or in making toast.
1971 caricature by Edmund Valtman
Belacqua wants to move around to evade the Furies, but “being by nature sinfully indolent, bogged in indolence, [he] ask[ed] nothing better than to stay put.” There are many specific places in and around Dublin mentioned (none of which mean anything to me). The ten stories appear in chronological order, but are not tied together into a novel. They differ considerably in voice, though all but one tend to show off obscure vocabulary (ponderous pedantic pomposity is characterization of the style made by his biographer, Deidre Blair).
Belacqua is not an interesting (or a sympathetic) character and his opinions are desperately flippant. It is in this and in many characters being crippled that they most obviously connect to the pared-down dialogue of Beckett’s post-World War II plays. Both narrator and protagonist are sarcastic to and beyond the point of viciousness. In the first story, Belacqua expresses concern and sympathy for a lobster about to be boiled alive, but in later ones he is indifferent to the deaths of wives and a little girl who is run down… and fairly indifferent to his own prospective death.
The book was banned in Ireland on the basis of its title, which is especially ironic in that it is biblical, alluding to Acts 9:5 (“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”). The high-falutin’ diction insured against any popular success. The dialect (or at least phonetic spelling) in the brief “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux” made that story unreadable to me. The longer “A Wet Night” is barely readable. From Blair, I learned that these are the two “stories” that are most directly autobiographical recall. Apparently, Belacqua’s meeting a woman in a pub who is attempting to sell seats in heaven (“Ding Dong”) is also more memoir than fiction—and strikingly odd rather than just peculiar. It and “Dante and the Lobster” are the two stories that I find almost appealing. They are more bemused than bitter.
A comic intent is often obvious, but the touch is never light, and such heavy lifting makes the puns and jokes seem more pathetic than funny. (In “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett would later manage both simultaneously, but not in More Pricks Than Kicks. Some of the characters other than Belacqua are less enervated. (I’m tempted to say he is a “dead center” that other lives pass near and that he thinks orbit around him.) His main interest is as self-loathing portrait of Beckett as a young cad, reveling in his caddishness and playing with language. There is certainly no plot (with a partial exception in “Fingal”), and I would not say the vignettes are really “character-driven” either. I’d say they are driven by toying with language and a loathing for the self (author and protagonist), for his associates, and for Ireland in general.
If the 25-year-old Beckett was following the advice of James Joyce (whom he had served as a secretary) to “write what is in your blood and not what is in your brain,” his veins were running with venom and contempt. But I would say he was spewing what was in his brain.
More Pricks Than Kicks is in effect Beckett’s Dubliners and Beckett’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rolled into one inferior stew. Whereas both of the Joyce books are read for their own merits, not as earlier works by the author of Ulysses, More Pricks Than Kicks would be forgotten and long out-of-print on its own merits, and is in-print as the point of departure (from the specific location of Dublin) of Beckett’s oeuvre.
I really don’t understand why I persisted in reading all ten stories, when I am surrounded by some many books I want to read and expect to enjoy more! An ingrained valuing of finishing whatever I start, I think. I could only recommend the collection to those interested in analyzing self-hatred in a particularly Irish style or intent to trace the evolution of Beckett’s writing from polysyllabic overkill to nothingness (by way of what strikes me as his only masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” written first in French; I long ago read the trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable), or at least the first two volumes of it, but suspect that that, too, was an exercise in masochism rather than rapport or enjoyment.
©2006, Stephen O. Murray