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Eyal Amiran begins the fifth chapter of his Wandering and Home with these telling sentences: "Beckett's work appropriates a larger topographical vision of the human cycle built on the dominant cosmological vision of the Western metaphysical tradition, a cosmic teleology made and remade by Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the early Gnostics, Plotinus, Augustine, Proclus, Boethius, Dante, Bruno, Milton, Vico, Blake, Yeats, and Joyce, among others. Beckett takes part in this logocentric tradition, summing it up as no other modern writer has, and without a picture of this participation there can be no full account of his fiction" (123). These high-sounding words accurately and compellingly establish Beckett's lineage in philosophy, theology, and literature from the Greeks to the modernist generation. They helpfully account for his wide-ranging sympathies and the echo-chamber effects of his work. It is clear that Beckett's oeuvre stands at the cutting edge of international literary experimentation, in a way that no body of writing since Joyce's has stood there. What T. S. Eliot once called "metaphysical moments" when referring to the ages of Dante, the English metaphysical poets, and the French symbolist poets may be said to assume a fourth literary presence during the sixty-year (1929-89) writing life of Samuel Beckett.
This long writing life and its many successes are fully documented in the four books under discussion here. They vary in approach and critical commitment, but all contribute to our understanding of Beckett's work. A quarter century ago a page-long review of a number of Beckett items in the Times Literary Supplement (London) made a telling point: "Thus, as the author's writings diminish to a thin trickle the volume of criticism swells to a flood."(1) The "thin trickle" continued until Beckett's death to the point where one is tempted to characterize him as a minimalist Goethe. Goethe also had a writing life of some sixty years and crossed with ease from one genre to another. He was the nonpareil writer of his generation, emphatically a part of Weltliteratur (a word he introduced into the German language), in the same way Beckett was.
It might be considered an understatement these days to speak of the volume of criticism accumulating about Beckett's work as swelling to a flood, as the TLS reviewer aptly described it in 1970. There have been a staggering number of books and articles which have appeared in just the five years since Beckett's death, ignoring for the moment the vast accumulation of critical writing of the previous three decades. Only Joyce in this century has attracted this much ongoing attention.
I should like to start my discussion of this gathering of recent books with a look at the least traditional of the four, Christopher Ricks's Beckett's Dying Words. Bernard Bergonzi is quoted on its dust jacket as describing the author "as the closest of close readers" and as someone who "can see more in a text, and what is more, persuade us to see it too, than anyone since William Empson." Bergonzi is speaking of two earlier books by Christopher Ricks, but his words apply nicely to Beckett's Dying Words. With the help of the OED, The Oxford Book of Death, and many other companion texts, Ricks examines Beckett in both the French and the English with exacting care. (He usefully points out differences between the two versions, scrupulously quoting each passage in both languages when there are bilingual texts available. With a nod to Coleridge's famous remark about Shakespeare, he speaks on one occasion of Beckett's "bilingual myriad-mindedness" .) The job he performs on these unique "self-translations," as Ruby Cohn once called them, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Brian T. Fitch's Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the Status of the Bilingual Work (1988) - which Ricks once calls "indefatigably thoroughgoing" (135).(2) Usually when Ricks turns to a passage he places some verbal or syntactical aspect of it under the microscope. He enjoys playing around with etymologies, neologisms, …