Samuel Beckett’s ‘More Pricks than Kicks’ and James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellman provides an almost certainly apocryphal account of Beckett transcribing sections of Finnegans Wake according to Joyce’s dictation, necessary due toJoyce’s failing eyesight. While this was ongoing, there was a knock at the door. Joyce called for whoever it was to come in and proceeded to have a conversation with them, all of which, apparently, Beckett dutifully typed. Joyce was confused by its presence in the proofs when Beckett read them back, but was amused enough to keep it in the final version.

John Banville points out that this friendship had its price. Not only did Beckett take to holding a cigarette in the same way as his mentor, but he also emulated his sartorial quirks and wore shoes that were too narrow for his feet. None of this is necessarily true, but it’s fun.

When reading his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks, I was struck by the comparisons that could be made between Beckett’s protagonist Belacqua Shuah and Joyce’s analogue in his own fiction, Stephen Dedalus. Both are notable for their solipsism, terrible attitudes towards women and pseudo-intellectualism. However, I found a far more engaging link towards the end of the short story ‘A Wet Night,’ in which one can see Beckett wryly negotiating Joyce’s hallowed ground. ‘A Wet Night’ parodically re-iterates the conclusion to Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ I’ll include it here because it’s out of copyright and always worth reading:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

‘A Wet Night,’ shares a setting with ‘The Dead.’ Both take place at Christmas dinner parties and feature a number of Dublin socialites. The conversation at both is insipid, but Beckett’s lacks all the nostalgia that Joyce probably felt, for even the most paltry of Dublin hospitality, writing it as he did in Trieste. While Gabriel Conroy leaves Usher Quay in high spirits, feeling himself to be passionately in love with his wife Gretta, Belacqua leaves his dinner party drunk and bereft:

But the wind had dropped, as it so often does in Dublin when all the respectable men and women whom it delights to annoy have gone to bed, and the rain fell in a uniform, untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.

I really enjoy the bathos of this passage. It teases the reader with its lyrical realism and suggestions towards universality. It then subverts itself with a rather banal academic tone, turning on the word ‘notably’ and the repetition of the word ‘uniform,’ as if the narrator had something more important to do than to vary their word choice.

In his alcohol-induced fugue, Belacqua throws away a new pair of shoes and we are told that his toes enjoy their newfound freedom which they are ‘rejoicing’ in. I hope it is not labouring the point to propose this as a pun that confirms the rain’s genealogy.