BOOK REVIEW / Be all and end all: Beckett's dying words by Christopher Ricks OUP pounds 17.50

DYING WORDS live on - that's their purpose, to leave an impression, like the dent in a pillow after the corpse has been removed. We associate them with truth-telling, and though, truth to tell, many last words have been banal (William Pitt the Younger: 'I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies'), and many others are surely apocryphal, others have been pleasingly in character: 'I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means' (Oscar Wilde, never losing self-consciousness); 'Kill me, or else you are a murderer' (Franz Kafka, tortured and paradoxical to the last).

The trouble with dying words is that they've become an institution. In Western culture it's almost expected of public figures that they round things off with an epigram: their posthumous life depends on it. Renaissance manuals on The Art of Dying Well urged those on their deathbeds to speak words of Christian repentance; in a secular age, the pressure is to be upbeat and sardonic, and woe to those who fall down on the job. Karl S Guthke, in his fascinating little book, Last Words (Princeton 1992), cites the poignant case of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who died imploring a journalist: 'Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something.'

No words seem to have been spoken by Samuel Beckett on his deathbed in December 1989, not according to the obituaries. But since Beckett devoted his life to the art of dying words (or dying art of words), this cannot be counted a catastrophe. What need have we of another exit line when there are so many in his work already? 'Perhaps my best years are gone,' says the last of Krapp's tape, 'But I wouldn't want them back.' 'Oh all to end' ends Stirrings Still, between hope and regret. 'I can't go on, I'll go on' goes The Unnameable, despair and affirmation, an exit line and a curtain call rolled in one.

For Christopher Ricks, whose new book is an attractively old-fashioned close reading of words and phrases from Beckett's drama and fiction, such double meanings are characteristic. Beckett's art is important because it faces the awkward and overlooked truth that, 'though we wish not to die, most people some of the time, and some people most of the time, do not want to live forever': all's well that ends. As the creator of characters who can't tell if they're awake or asleep, who suspect themselves of being more dead than alive and who consider that they're 'not particularly human', Beckett is the writer for an age in which medical advances enable us to prolong lives past the point where they seem worth living. 'I have lived in a kind of coma,' says Malone. 'The loss of consciousness for me was never any great loss.' For Malone, Molloy, Hamm, Nagg and the rest, life is a relentless progress towards the last, horizontal resting-place: 'Better on your arse than on your feet, / Flat on your back than either, dead than the lot.' Never to have been born would have been best, but dying is the next best creature comfort: 'sleep till death / healeth / come ease / this life disease'.

All this may be to make Beckett sound like the miserabilist and futilist he was taken for when Waiting for Godot was first staged. But for Ricks, who in a rare anecdotal moment recalls seeing the original London production of Godot in 1955, Beckett is a writer energised by last things: the worst brings out the best in him; up to their necks in sand and despair, his characters are both captive to and captivated by death. One of the best sections of the book demonstrates Beckett's skill at resurrecting cliches, not least those cliches which have to do with resurrection: 'a new lease of apathy', 'Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards', 'Left in peace they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark'. The last quote sends Ricks to the OED, and the Gospel of St Mark, and to Swift (whose Gulliver is a key witness throughout). He quotes Beckett refusing an interview on the grounds that 'I have no views to inter', and shows how he disinters dead but quintessentially Beckettian words like 'inexistent' and 'dimmen'. His book is rich - just as Beckett's art is rich - when it pores over a variety of sources.

It's a prickly book, too, fuelled by little and not-so-little feuds. There is a running argument with thanatologists for their failure to acknowledge that the one thing worse than not living for ever would be living for ever. Journalists, social scientists and bureaucrats are found using laughably sloppy language. Peggy Guggenheim, with whom Beckett had an affair, is bitchily slighted in passing. Above all, Ricks is contemptuous of literary theorists (their very name, he says, is an oxymoron), who would have us believe that everything in Beckett is fictive, verbal and self- reflexive, and who thereby deny him his power as a realist - an artist whose subject is human suffering and 'piteous bodily weakness'.

Ricks's Beckett is not only a realist, he is elegant and almost prissy: a writer fluent in English, French and Latin but not in Gaelic; a writer to compare with Larkin and Samuel Johnson; if Irish at all, not a Dublin vaudeville act, but a wit like Wilde or Swift. No reader could finish this book without seeing Beckett differently. Instead of the unpunctuated gasper-out of nihilisms, he seems an artist of icy nicety, whose characters say things like 'I am dead enough myself, I hope, not to feel any great respect for those that are so entirely': more Lady Bracknell than Kafka.

Christopher Ricks has sometimes strummed and punned along with those he studies, as if his job were not to illuminate them but to shine himself: the critic as reluctant accompanist. Yet there is something shy and humble about him too. In Beckett's Dying Words his word-plays convince you not of their author's exasperating cleverness but of his subject's exact and exacting use of language. At its best, the literary criticism here is more inventive and entertaining to read than most contemporary novels or books of poetry. Even Beckett - in whose Godot 'Critic]' is the worst insult Vladimir and Estragon can dream up - might be applauding, if things have turned out badly and there is an afterlife after all.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried