[(essay date April 2001) In the following essay, Hunter determines the influence of Joyce's Dubliners on More Pricks than Kicks.]
Reviewing More Pricks than Kicks in 1934, Edwin Muir identified a Beckett very much at home in Bloom's kitchen: 'the toasting of a slice of bread, or the purchase and cooking of a lobster, can become matters of intellectual interest and importance to him'.1 For Muir, the influence of Joyce was no cause for concern, though he was firm in his conclusion that, as yet, Beckett's work '[did] not nearly come up to' the standard of the master. Other reviewers at the time were not so forgiving, blaming the waywardness, incontinence and 'verbal aggravation' of Beckett's prose on his obvious enthralment to 'Mr. Joyce's latest work' (i.e. 'Work in Progress'), a book which for any young writer was bound to prove 'a dangerous model'.2 While it is not surprising to find reviewers connecting the two authors, it is nevertheless odd that they should identify Beckett's debt as owing to Ulysses and the 'Work in Progress' and not to Joyce's volume of similarly interconnected short fictions, Dubliners. As John P. Harrington points out, if one reads the More Pricks [More Pricks Than Kicks] stories alongside Ulysses and 'Work in Progress' then the portrait of Beckett as 'epigone of Joyce',3 his loyal secretary, is quickly drawn. It is only when we compare them with Dubliners that the critical and parodic intelligence of Beckett's stories begins to emerge.
An important document in Beckett's response to his modernist precursors is the first of the three dialogues with 'George Duthuit', concerning Tal-Coat. The dialogue is frequently cited for the vision it offers of an expressionless art of the future: 'The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express'.4 This statement is generally taken as Beckett's commitment to an art of radical indigence from which all of 'nature' will disappear, all white in the whiteness. However, Beckett is stating here his disappointment with the 'revolutionary' art of the present: Matisse and Tal-Coat, for all their 'prodigious value', are still for him artists of 'nature' enlarging upon that fundamental 'composite of perceiver and perceived' to which all art of the past has appealed. Modernism continues to patrol 'the field of the possible ... the plane of the feasible', and so to understand it, to assimilate it, requires only some realignment by the viewer. Faced with the work which foregrounds its incompleteness, we learn to read silence and absence: 'Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object. Question of degree' (Proust and Three Dialogues, pp. 101-3).
In recent criticism of Dubliners there has been much discussion of the indeterminacy generated by Joyce's 'missing parts', his 'scrupulous meanness'.5 Irritated by realist and symbolist readings which seek 'verifiable facts and incontrovertible conclusions' (Basic, p. 351), critics have tried...