In brief, the book is a working through of Beckett's major themes and his style, in particular his playful use of language. From the title on down, puns and wordplay abound. Dying Words refers to words about death, but also dead words or dead language, such as clichés, or Latin, say. And if Beckett has ever struck you as overly death-obsessed, Ricks has a lot of fun demonstrating the contradictions and absurdities embodied in the seemingly simple words we use to discuss, or even simply refer to, life and death, the life in our words about death, the death in our words about life. Indeed this is, of course, the source of so much of Beckett's comedy.
Here is a page or so from relatively late in the book, to give a flavor of Ricks' style and method:
Whether Beckett's French is as apt an instrument as his English, or rather his Irish English, and whether this would be because of something about Beckett or about French: these are less important than our enjoying his bilingual myriad-mindedness as evincing a true wit, wit as T. S. Eliot understood it: 'It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.' The experience of another language is the supreme instance of such a recognition.The reference to Beckett's French is worth commenting on. Throughout the book, Ricks compares the English and French versions of various passages. In general, the French seems to lack the vitality of the English. Alas, my own French is not up to snuff, but Ricks shows us numerous instances where the play in Beckett's choice of words is missing in the French, whether the French or the English was the original.
The two senses of a workaday phrase—all over [again] or all over [finished]—may beckon the afterlife. On this earth we may hope for summary mercy, but it too will need to avail itself of this turn. Plus 'all over' as 'very characteristic of'.Scrupulous to the last, finical to a fault, that's Malone, all over.The French, appositely the same as ever, is: 'Ah ce vieux Moran, toujours le même.'
Ah Moran, he said, what a man! I was staggering with weakness. If I had dropped dead at his feet he would have said, Ah poor old Moran, that's him all over.
Alive to all these paralysing possibilities of antithetical senses, Beckett works unusual wonders with the usual condition that cleave can mean either stick together or cut apart (there's another mortal liveliness for you); and with the fact, no less pertinent to his lifelong preoccupation with whether or not one is going to be allowed to say 'thanks for the nice time and go', that leave and left may be likewise equivocal. (Get to go, or get to stay?)
Beckett does not scorn as nugatory the smaller pleasures of these words. He finds not only pleasure but profit in the awareness that even prepositions may palter with us in a double sense. It is agreeably confounding that to slow down is hard to distinguish from slowing up, and that saving against your old age turns out to resemble saving for it.
A final note: the final chapter is an entertaining mini-account of the Irish bull, the kind of absurd language in which the speaker appears foolish. Ricks tells us how earlier, English, accounts of the bull tended to assume that the speaker knew not what he or she was saying, the joke was on them. But Ricks argues, and it seems clear he is right, that the joke was on the English, who of course as the oppressor in the relationship, were not inclined to see themselves as the butt of jokes. He then gives us numerous very funny examples of the Irish bull appearing in Beckett's prose.
I've only barely hinted at what this book has to offer. It goes without saying that anyone interested in Beckett's writing will want to read Beckett's Dying Words, however I also think it's a good place to turn if you've had troubles finding your way in to Beckett (another good place is Hugh Kenner's Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett).