Early Beckett

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


Rural Writers Plugging Away with Intermittent Notice

Pros: interesting characters and situation as writers, photos

Cons: too many repetitions, too little of Susan Eisele’s writing

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(Aurora Borealis over an Estonian lake rather than one of the 15,000 Minnestoa ones; shot by Kristian Pikner)

Like Albert E. Eisele, my father was transported as a baby from rural Illinois to Faribault County in southern Minnesota. Like Albert A. Eisele (sixteen years my elder), I graduated from Blue Earth High School, and shared the same family doctor as the Eiseles. I remember Susan Frawley Eisele, wife of Albert E. and mother of Albert A., seeming to wrestle with a bulky camera taking pictures (including some that I was in) at Blue Earth High School for the Blue Earth Post, the weekly newspaper for which she also wrote a homespun miscellany of a column for decades.

I’m not sure whether those close parallels and glancing intersections makes me more or less sympathetic to Albert A’s joint biography of his parents, Northern Lights, Southern Nights: A Memoir of Writing Parents (2015). I never met him, don’t remember ever talking to his mother, and was born in the same year his father died. I read the book with some familiarity with the setting and a few persons mentioned in passing, but was probably more disappointed at the failure of the book to be what its subtitle advertises — a memoir — than readers from elsewhere are likely to be. (I hoped to learn something of what it was like to grow up in/near Blue Earth a decade and a half before I did.)

There is exceedingly little of memories from Albert A. in the book. Almost everything in it derives from manuscripts and clippings from newspapers and magazines by or about his parents. Their careers as writers for rural newspapers (syndicated columns) and in the case of Albert E. as a contributor of close-to-the-earth stories published in American Catholic periodicals while farming and raising children (three boys of whom Albert A. was the youngest survived childhood).

Susan wrote fast, her husband slowly. Alas there is not the slightest indication of how Albert A. or his older brothers felt about the time their parents’ writing took — or how they felt about their parents’ minor fame in rural northern Iowa and southern Minnesota and in national Catholic periodicals, along with something of a fifteen minutes of national celebrity Susan had, being named the country’s outstanding rural journalist for 1936 and invited to New York City and D.C. with the newly born Albert A.

The book needed a copyeditor to point out (and/or cut!) repetitions. Albert A. runs through statistics on Albert E’s publications five or six times and says that Susan never traveled to the East Coast again after 1936, though there is not only discussion but a photo of her with Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1977 (Albert A. was press secretary for then-Vice President Walter Mondale). An editor might have suggested changing “’The Brother Who Came’ was described by literary magazine editor as ‘one of the finest short stories ever written” from passive to active as well as supplying an article before “literary.” This is quite aside from the unsupportability of the estimation by David Marshall (founder of something called A.D.): there are two or three better Eisele stories included as an appendix to the dual biography, and “Brother” exemplifies the superfluous dialog for which a critic quoted in the text faulted Albert E’s fiction.

The six stories by Albert E. Eisele are Chekhovian, though didactic and more sentimental than Chekhov’s were , with occasional odd (or mistaken) word choices and sometimes awkward syntax. Unfortunately, Albert A. includes only two of his mother’s thousands of columns, including both an image of the original appearance and the text. I wish he had included the one (or the whole set of five submissions) that won her the best rural journalist of 1936 recognition.

It seems that both of his parents chose to ignore the censorious backbiting of busybodies in rural communities, including the one in which both Albert A. Eisele and I grew up —in contrast the earlier representation of Sauk Centre, MN in Main Street, which Susan told a NYC interviewer in 1936 (after publication of Babbit, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, The Man who Knew Coolidge, and Elmer Gantry) was the last good book Sinclair Lewis wrote… or the bitterness of the Spoon River Anthology and the despair of Giants in the Earth.


(neo-Romanesque edifice built in 1870, now on the National Historic Registry)

Despite the disappointments I have mentioned, I found the story of writers from Faribault County, Minnesota struggling for attention interesting. Susan, who was born on the coast of South Carolina and moved to Tennessee observed some of the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 and remarked about some other Tennesseans that “they are fundamentalists because they have not the courage to look beyond their own narrow horizons and see that the other fellow has the same protection under the laws of this country as they have,” an observation that is particularly apposite to the fundamentalist reaction to same-sex marriage and to Minnesotan as well as Tennessean fundamentalists (and not a few Catholic priests, as well).

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(The Etta C. Ross Memorial Library in Blue Earth, Minnesota, which is no longer the Blue Earth Library. It is now an adjunct of the local historical society and the library has moved to the former site of the Red Owl groucery store)

BTW, Albert Eisele wrote a much longer dual biography of Minnesota senators Eugene J. McCarthy and Hubert H. Humphrey who vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, Almost to the Presidency).


©2018, Stephen O. Murrau


“The sun is God.”: Mike Leigh’s 2014 “Mr. Turner”

Pros:look, performance

Cons: throws viewers into the artist’s midlife without establishing context/background


I learned a lot about the life of  painter “Mr. [J.M.W.] Turner” from Mike Leigh’s 2014 film. In the title role Timothy Spall won best actor awards at Cannes and from the New York Film Critics, but not even a BAFTA nomination.

I found the film difficult to get into and for perhaps the first (of two and a half) hour thought that Turner was autistic. Although undeniably gnomic, he was too successful with patrons and within the Royal Academy of Arts (where his staccato pieces of advice were appreciated and acted upon) to have been autistic, for all his grunts and mistreatment of his two daughters, their mother (Ruth Sheen), and his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) —though he provided for her to have life tenancy in the house in which she served him—… even as he maintained another household with the twice-widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, Leigh’s life partner, who has acted in many of his films), starting renting a room from her using one of his middle names (Mr. Mallard)  in Margate overlooking the harbor.


The film looks great with recreations of the Royal Academy’s annual shows, landscapes, seascapes, etc. Dick Pope’s cinematography did get BAFTA and Oscar nominations (Pope was earlier nominated for an Oscar and for an ASC award for the 2007 “The Illusionist”; he shot “Topsy Turvy,” Vera Drake,” and “Secrets and Lies” for Leigh earlier). I think that Pope shows something of what Turner saw as beautiful (indeed, many of the shots are, to me, more beautiful than Turner’s paintings, a major exhibition of which are currently at the De Young Museum in San Francisco; Tate Britain owns 20,000 Turner works, so always has a room of Turners on display). Turner’s last words (in the movie and reputedly on his deathbed) were “The sun is god,” and differences of light were his focus before the Impressionists (who had some “anxiety of influence” in regard to Turner; in the movie he has none for Claude Lorraine, whose work he defends from a young John Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire).

I found Leigh’s 1999 “Topsy Turvy” more entertaining, but “Mr. Turner” is often gorgeous and has a superb performance by Timothy Spall, who shows the artist as more than a cold brute, and who is ably supported by cast and crew.

The DVD also includes a scene of less than two minutes, “Billiards,” that was deleted (and, indeed, serves no purpose in terms of characterization or plot). There is a feature-length commentary track laid down by Mike Leigh that is probably interesting, but which I have not (yet?) heard).

I found the half-hour making-of featurette (The Many Colors of Mr. Turner) very informative, especially about location, use of images of paintings from Turner and his time, the manufacture of paintings for Spall to work on (and his 2.5-years learning to paint) and a useful series of paired images the other Academy painters who appear briefly and their paintings. The Blu-Ray edition includes another featurette, “The Cinematic Palette” that is not on the DVD.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A now-canonical proto-feminist classic: Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel “The Awakening”

Pros: short

Cons: very predictable (heavily foreshadowed)


I’m not sure which is more difficult to understand: how shocking Kate Chopin’s widely banned novel The Awakening was in 1899 or the claims of its being a masterpiece in the late twentieth century. It is not very long — 128 pages in the Penguin Classics of Modern Literature edition — though I found it very easy to put down and would not have finished if it had been longer. The widowed Chopin’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is not crushed by society, as Lily Bart is in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. She does not have to support herself or to earn the money to live independently.

Edna grows restive in her gilded cage and fancies herself in love with a man hot her husband and no worthier than the seducer, Rudolphe Boulanger, whom Flaubert’s Madame Bovary overvalues. Edna kills herself before “giving herself” to the insubstantial escort (at his mother’s Louisiana Gulf Coast pension), Robert Lebrun. Robert does not have the time to tire of his easy conquest, as Boulanger did.

Chopin admired Flaubert’s protégé Guy de Maupassant, whom she described as “a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes.” Though her omniscient narration has some of Maupassant’s coolness (and Robert bears some resemblance to his Bel Ami), her short novel seeks reader identification with the shallow Edna Pontellier, even if it begins (as did Madame Bovary) with a look at the soon-to-squirm wife from the husband’s perspective.

At least at the onset, Edna is in what is a colony of women and children during the week, husbands/fathers visiting Grand Isle only on weekends. Edna has friends, both there and back in the metropole of New Orleans, including the pianist Mademoiselle Reisz, who lives for and from music, as Edna never will from painting, indeed, cannot even fantasize about doing, though ready enough to claim to be “an artist.

I think there are some minor point-of-view problems (e.g., would the elderly doctor really think of Edna as “a sleek animal waking in the sun”?), but, more importantly, there is a lot of analysis where there should be representation, e.g., “The present alone was significant, was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost what she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned newly awakened being demanded.” (This is not only abstract, but is also very awkwardly expressed! Somewhat less awkward, but even more dubious is the claim that  “at a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions”).

Her husband Léonce may be fatuous and insensitive to Edna’s heretofore slumbering inner life and lack of fulfillment as a mother-wife, but she shows not the slightest effort to understand the man who supports her life of leisure. She takes her own life before wrecking his, in contrast to Undine in Edith Wharton’s 1913 The Custom of the Country.


The Awakening strikes me as being primarily of historical interest, not having the literary power of the two Wharton novels I have mentioned.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Virginia Woolf (8?): Her Nephew Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled

It’s taken me more than a decade since buying it to get around to reading Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled (first published in 1995; Bell lived from 1910 until 1996). Though he set out to write an autobiography, after three failures he instead produced a set of memoirs of Bloomsbury figures of his parents’ generation (including both, or all three of them). All that I read (some are about figures in whom I have no interest) are not only perspicacious, but generous. He liked John Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballet dancer wife Lydia a lot, Leonard Woolf almost as much and is more than charitable toward Anthony Blunt (though appalled at Guy Burgess). As much as he revered Matisse’s paintings, he found the man an egomaniacal bore (Picasso was also egomaniacal, but perhaps Bell did not spend enough time in his company to find him boorish).


He had already published an esteemed, award-winning two-volume biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf (1972). Technically, there is not a chapter on her in BR, but there is an appendix discussing A Room of Ones Own and Three Guineas, both of which he considered novels (and the latter an argument with his dead older brother, Julian). She also figures extensively in the chapter on her husband, Leonard Woolf, and her sister, Vanessa Bell. In particular, in the latter instance, he takes on the question of whether the girls were raped by their half-brother, George Duckworth. Though what Duckworth did would count as abuse, Quentin Bell is certain that vaginal penetration was not involved, both sisters being virgins when they married. He regrets never asking his mother about the matter, though it is very easy to understand why any son would be reluctant to go there.

I didn’t learn anything about the Stracheys (except that Dorothy Strachey Bussy, Gide’s translator into English, revered Trotsky). I guess I didn’t learn anything about Morgan Forster, either, but I know a lot about his biography and found what Bell wrote not only very kind, but also quite wise, especially about A Passage to India (which was not Bell’s favorite Forster novel; he does not specify which one was).

He is as nonjudgmental about the homosexual and heterosexual liaisons of his elders as they were about each other’s (though he disliked one of Keynes’s, Gabriel Atkins, Bell quite liked another, Sebastian Sprott).


I want to append what I wrote in 1999 about Leon Edel’s Bloomsbury: A House of Lions:

Edel comes across as a prissy, pompous, reductionist Freudian homophobe, smug and racist (about the “race” of Jews and about “primitives”). In short, his psychologizing and attempts to provide racial and sexual anthropology appalled me. E.g. Woolf “could appeal to a homosexual like Lytton [Strachey], since her aloofness offered no womanly threat” (194) or repeating Leonard Woolf’s view of Keynes as a “mental hermaphrodite” (39), whatever that might mean!

Though Edel both biographical detail and some sense of connections of the famous circle, I much prefer Bell’s insider account and can heartily recommend Bell’s book


©2018, Stephen O. Murray