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.