In itself More Pricks than Kicks is what Beckett called 'self-plagiarism', the best kind of plagiarism to him: much of the material came from his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which Prentice (among others) had previously rejected and was only published in 1992, several years after Beckett's death: the title is in part a play on Tennyson's A Dream of Fair Women, and with the colloquial (working-class?) expression 'fair to middling' included, is perhaps an indication of the poly-linguistic nature of the work, which ranges from foreign, esoteric, learned, slang, and taboo expressions (included in later editions, but left as in the original 1934 edition here): 'arse' is left as 'B. T. M.' and 'Flitter the fucker' as 'Flitter the --', for instance.
The protagonist Belacqua Shaua is taken from Dante's fourth canto of Purgatorio, which is the second part of his La Divina Commedia (written from 1308 to 1320). The name is (coincidentally?) a reversal of Beckett's own initials, and Dante's Belacqua was a lute-maker, lazy like Beckett himself at the time of publication, and the name indicates 'beautiful water', but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Intertextual references abound in all of the stories in the book, often to Dante, the Bible, but also to many other books Beckett was reading at the time: there's a surviving manuscript (usually just called 'Dream') in which he noted any interesting expressions of sentences he met, along with autobiographical notes. More Pricks than Kicks is in many ways an autobiographical work.
'Dante and the Lobster' is the first story, set in 8 December 1926, in which Belacqua has three obligations, although not necessarily in the order given (this is Beckett, let's remember, and narrative sequence is of minor value): there's lunch, the lobster, and the Italian lesson. Lunch is a 'nice affair', with 'nice' meaning 'subtle' or 'exacting' rather than 'pleasant', so he locks the door so no one can 'come at him'. The most interesting thing here is that the bread is personified, it '[i]s spongy and warm, alive', and even has a 'face' which he'll soon remove. Why 8 december 1926? Well, the morning after Henry McCabe (mentioned several times in this story) was hanged then for the murder of the McDonnell family and servants (six in all) in their home in Malahide, Dublin. Beckett, who was far from sure of McCabe's guilt, was in any way against the death penalty. The destruction of the food in some way feeds into the story, and this is followed by the boiling of a living lobster. Beautiful water
'Fingal' is the second story, which Mary Power calls a 'Modern contribution to the duinschenchas tradition of place in Irish literature' (Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1981-82), pp. 151-156 (151). Belacqua walks in Fingal with Winnie Coates: the name is one of Beckett's jokes, as Donald Winnicott was a psychoanalyst. They are near where what was then called the lunatic asylum at Portrane, where Winifred knows the psychiatrist Dr Sholto, whom she meets. Belacqua then steals a bicycle and goes back to Dublin, where he happily goes to the pub.
'Ding-Dong' is the third story, in which Belacqua 'enlivened the last phase of his solipsism, before he toed the line and began to relish the world, with the belief that the last thing he had to do was to move constantly from place to place'. His movements are confined to going from pub to pub and in the end is conned into buying seats in heaven by a woman in a pub.
'A Wet Night' is the fourth story, and like Joyce's 'The Dead' has a festive Christmas setting with a number of people involved, although of course Beckett (like Belacqua) hated social gatherings. Of note are some of the characters, such as Caleken Frica, who represents Mary Manning (Howe), Beckett's friend who he helped with her play 'Youth's the Season'; the Alba, who represents Ethna MacCarthy, an unusually liberated woman Beckett met at Trinity College, and with whom he was obsessed; the Syra-Cusa represents James's Joyce's highly disturbed daughter Lucia, who was infatuated with Beckett although he did his best to avoid her; and 'Chas': Jean du Chas was Beckett's fictitious poet born on the same day as him, and with whom he took pleasure in introducing in a lecture to the Trinity Modern Languages Society. The party represented here (in a very distorted way) really existed, and was given by Susan Manning, Mary's daughter.
'Love and Lethe' is the fifth story, which concerns Belacqua picking up Ruby Tough from her home at her parents and driving off to a mountain where they have made a suicide pact, either by bullet or poison. Ruby accidentally fires the gun which doesn't find a target and as she has tempted him they have sex: love and death are much the same, aren't they? Dante's Purgatorio is an obvious reference, although there are biblical references, such as to Perugino's Pietà, as well to the temptation of Christ, with Ruby seen as Mary Magdelene, for instance: we have woman seen as both the sacred and the profane. More obscure references as to Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy’s fairy tale princesses Florine and Truitonne in L'Oiseau bleu, and Knowlson has also discovered an allusion to Tasso's Aminta.
'Walking Out' is the sixth story, the title referring to an expression of courtship, and sees Belacqua riding horseback in the countryside with his fiancée Lucy, only when Lucy discovers that her fiancé has gone there to spy on a German couple having sex (voyeurism isn't uncommon among Beckettian heroes) she leaves quickly, gets hit by a car driven by a drunken lord and spends the rest of her time in a wheelchair (again, a means of transport not unkown in the Beckett canon). Meanwhile Belacqua, unaware of the accident, is caught by 'the Tanzherr' (the male spied on) and beaten severely. Belacqua marries Lucy.
'What a Misfortune' is the seventh story, referring to Voltaire's eunuch's comment on Cunégonde's beauty in Candide: 'O che sciagura d’essere senza coglioni ! (Oh quel malheur d'être sans couilles !)': both the Italian and the French are given in Voltaire, meaning 'What a misfortune not to have balls'. This story is a satire on the bourgeois Irish Protestant family. Two years after his marriage to Lucy, she dies. The narrative very much concerns Belacqua's and his wedding (plus reception) to Thelma bboggs [sic], who's the daughter of Otto (in, ahem, toiletries) and Bridie, who's been sexually serviced by Walter Draffin, with the full approval of Otto, who doesn't have to bother with the chore: so Walter (as the cicisbeo) receives a wedding invitation, which he accepts. The friendless Belacqua co-opts 'Hairy', or Capper Quin, into being best man. We learn in the final chapter that Thelma dies on the honeymoon night.
'The Smeraldina's Billet-Doux' is the eighth story, and is based on a love letter that a cousin of Beckett's, Peggy Sinclair, written to him. She had left with her family for Germany when young and had an affair later with Beckett, who several times visited her in Germany, although she died in 1931, when Beckett was in hospital in Dublin. Peggy's parents were angry with Beckett's mention of her letter to him, in which he parodies Peggy's poor English.
'Yellow' is the ninth story, which sees Belacqua in hospital for operations on his neck and toe (like Beckett). His reference to being frightened of 'wet[ting] the bed' is probably an allusion to Jules Renard's writing, which was a great source of pleasure to Beckett. Beckett too had been in hospital, although unlike Belacqua he survived: Belacqua's anaesthetic was too strong.
'Draff', which refers to dregs, is the tenth and final story, and concerns the Smeraldina (Belacqua's third wife) handling his funeral. The unnamed groundsman drinking his Guinness will becaome Doyle in 'Echo's Bone's'. There's a suggestion that the Smermaldina and Capper 'Hairy' Quin will become a couple, and as Hairy drives to Belacqua's former house the gardener has set it on fire: another reference to the Malahide murders.
Much ink has been spent on More Pricks than Kicks and no doubt will continue to do so, as stories in it seem endlessly re-interpretable.