Writing on Life Support

Beckett's Dying Words

by Christopher Ricks
Oxford University Press, 218 pp., $25.00

Dream of Fair to Middling Women

by Samuel Beckett
Arcade, 241 pp., $21.95

Christopher Ricks, one of a number of English academics who abandoned Britain during the Thatcher years, is now professor of English at Boston University. He is quintessentially English, in the critical line of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Empson; an anti-theorist with eclectic tastes (Philip Larkin, Bob Dylan), and a master of the art of close reading, whose books The Force of Poetry, Milton’s Grand Style, and the hectic and illuminating Keats and Embarrassment, are of great originality. Beckett’s Dying Words is the text of his Clarendon Lectures delivered at Oxford in 1990.

The last thing one expects from critical exegeses is the pleasure of laughter. However, Professor Ricks’s study of Samuel Beckett’s last-gasp fiction, poetry, and drama is not only a superb work of criticism but also an extremely funny book. Ricks is not afraid of playing to the gallery. (“There is one thing,” he writes, “which all of Beckett’s consciousnesses are freely and unremittingly given: pause.”) The comedy is cumulative, a matter of courting danger, of sustained wordplay and delicately executed linguistic leaps, a performance that is at the very least admirable, even if one’s reaction to the more daring aerial turns may be a whispered Ouch! Reading Ricks is like watching an elegantly frenetic clown performing somersaults on a highwire. Here he is meditating on a couple of lines from one of Beckett’s late, brief prose works, The Lost Ones. The lines are: “that here all should die but with so gradual and to put it plainly so fluctuant a death as to escape the notice even of a visitor.” Ricks’s gloss is dazzling:

A triumph of mortification, the scourging word “fluctuant,” and it contrives, very oddly since you may very well never have met this exact word before, “to put it plainly.” If, lying there, you were to overhear that your pulse fluctuated, this might not mean the end; but fluctuant. And when nurses and doctors, nearests and dearests, are unnoticing, there may be the more attentive eye of the stranger. What should not escape our notice is Beckett’s penchant for locating the word “escape” in the immediate vicinity of “death.”

Death is fluctuant as birth, both necessitating contractions.

The funny moments of the book, it should be said, are incidental to Ricks’s main thesis. He is too much the pragmatic and commonsensical Englishman to attempt to erect a grand theory, yet there is a general theme, which is stated with admirable if sinuous force in the opening pages:

Most people most of the time want to live for ever. This truth is acknowledged in literature, including Beckett’s. But like many a truth, it is a half-truth, not half-true but half of the truth, as is the truth of a proverb. For, after all, most people some of the time, and some people most of the time, do not want to live for ever.

Quoting Eliot’s well-known dictum that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” Ricks…

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