BOOK REVIEW: Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett

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I just read Dante and the Lobster over coffee and an unnecessarily large amount of mini flapjacks. Now that I’m nicely buzzed on caffeine and sugar I won’t hold off telling you how brilliant it is. I might even insist that you read it, READ IT NOW.

It is delightful. Lighthearted in its tone, and deep in its meaning. And probably is much easier to read than it was to write, for it is obvious that every word was chosen with the utmost care and attention and not one word is out of place.

It’s short-story telling at its finest. 

It was overlooked at the time it was first published as part of his More Pricks Than Kicks short story collection in 1934. And it took a while for the story to gain the acclamation it most surely deserves. 

In this story, the premise is simple. The main character Belacqua,’s puzzled reading of The Divine Comedy is interrupted by the clock striking twelve, prompting him to move on to the rest of his duties for the day:

“Three large obligations presented themselves: First, lunch, then the lobster, then the Italian lesson.” 

So the irritable Belacqua goes on with his chores in a comical manner bordering on the obsessive.

“He looked sceptically at the cut of cheese. He turned it over on its back to see was the side any better. The other side was worse. They had laid it better side up, they had practised the little deception. Who shall blame them? He rubbed it. It was sweating. That was something. He stooped and smelt it. A faint fragrance of corruption. What good was that? He didn’t want fragrance, he wasn’t a bloody gourmet, he wanted a good stench.” 

Belacqua’s journey from lunch, to the purchase of the lobster, to his Italian lesson is full of realisations and surprises big and small – Gorgonzola cheese doesn’t have to be green to be tasty, his progress in Italian is not what he thought it was, he bought a live lobster – accompanied by the ongoing wondering about the fate of Mac Cabe, the local serial killer on death row. 

Mac Cabe, the personification of death, is only ever mentioned in passing, but recurrently, like an unpleasant thought one might shoo away by concentrating on something else. However, he provides the story with its dark depth, counterbalancing the mundanity of Belacqua’s chores.

Without him, the story would not work as well, becoming a mere comedy, albeit an excellent one. And without the comedic elements, the impending doom of Mac Cabe and the Lobster, along with the shameless reminder of our own mortality, would be a right downer. 

Dante and the Lobster is the perfect execution of everything creative fiction teachers will profess.

Enticing title: check.

Punchy style: check.

Intriguing prompts: check.

Secondary characters adding to the narrative: check.

Depth: check. Build up of tension: check. Killer last line: cheeeeck. 

Get yourself a copy! The Faber Stories version, with its gorgeous artwork, costs less than an average sandwich, definitely less than a lobster (average or otherwise) and will keep you satisfied longer. 

Dante and the Lobster is published by Faber & Faber for more information about their Faber Stories and 90th Anniversary click here.


Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906. He was educated at Portora Royal School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1927. His made his poetry debut in 1930 with Whoroscope and followed it with essays and two novels before World War Two. He wrote one of his most famous plays, Waiting for Godot, in 1949 but it wasn’t published in English until 1954. Waiting for Godot brought Beckett international fame and firmly established him as a leading figure in the Theatre of the Absurd. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. Beckett continued to write prolifically for radio, TV and the theatre until his death in 1989.

Reviewed by Barbara F. Jones




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