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'If This Notion Is Maintained'

The Lost Ones, by Samuel Beckett Grove Press, $1.65

By Phil Patton

A STRANGE NOTION: people living "inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and eighteen high," bounded by hard rubber walls, pulsing with shadowless yellow light, oscillating between extreme heat and cold--"abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one." A first reaction: as if among an audience, hearing a doubtful line, you are tempted to snicker, until looking around you see all the rest staying silent and sober, and the glint in the speaker's eye refusing to lighten his dead-pan.

You might laugh at The Lost Ones, except for fear of how the laugh would sound. It's hard to laugh at hell, even at a hell like this one. And through the precise, deliberate prose of this sixty-page "story" you can feel Samuel Beckett sternly watching, eyes glaring from the thin face beneath its defiant gray crest, offering precious little refuge for that laugh.

Beckett's intensity maintains his little joke to its very end. It makes The Lost Ones a sort of parable driven to death among details--the rough grayness of flesh in the cylinder, the mindless exactness ruling the wanderings of its denizens. It takes a single notion and analyzes it into a whole underworld.

It is as if The Lost Ones were the remnant of a whole novel freeze-dried in the fickle climate of the cylinder, a whole Inferno shrunken into the raisin of a single situation. The taste is concentrated and pungent. Partly it is the terse style, partly it is the large type employed (with small case letters as big as the capitals on this page) but every word seems as full and in-itself as those of a first reading book seem to a child. Each sentence stands larger than life, and is stated so definitely and with so much technical precision that it seems to be irrefutable, material fact. It is the sort of language that never smiles, but occasionally seems to wink: "What first impresses in this gloom is the sensation of yellow it imparts not to say of sulphur in view of the associations."

DANTE, WHOSE OWN GAZE was as resolute in considering his underworld, looms large in the background of Beckett's work. Plato's cave is recalled by the rumor continually circulating in the cylinder that there is a way out, either through a tunnel in the wall or through a trap door in the unreachable ceiling, and by the memory that once man had seen stars shine. But the Inferno in the closet thing to a predecessor ones wander endlessly in a circle, pausing only to climb one of the ladders leading to niches high in the walls, or to join the numbers of the "non-searchers," the "sedentary," or the "vanquished." These are slumped against the walls in the position of Beckett's favorite figure from the Purgatorio, Belacqua, doomed to sit for ages with head between knees for repenting too late.

Like Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno, lovers are swept about in this chaotic searching and meet only occasionally, by chance. The lost ones are not lost souls, but rather men without souls: "None looks within himself where none can be."

To condense a whole realm into these sixty pages, and yet develop that whole from a single notion, Beckett employs a thoroughly analytic form of organization. Instead of Dante's rings, the description is ordered into sections of increasing specificity, moving from the most obvious facts of life in the cylinder, to particular numbers, times, physical configurations of the light and temperature cycles or the exact traffic pattern followed by various groups on the floor of the cylinder. In this natural history of a hell, only three or four individual men are picked out of the mass, and only about one is there any real "story," the last man, who as the book enters its final page ceases his searching through the cylinder. The Lost Ones is essentially the exercise of a narrator who is Cartesian in knowing, describing, analyzing--and in the process creating.

IT'S A BORING TECHNIQUE. And boredom--a tense Godot-like waiting, the boredom of the recurrent cycle--is an essential fact of life in the cylinder. The wandering is circular. The pulsing of light and fluctuation of temperature form a cycle that is agonizing both in its recurrence and in the possibility that it will end: "Its restlessness at long intervals suddenly stilled like panting at the last. Then all go dead. It is perhaps the end of their abode. A few seconds and all begins again."

The bold, comma-less sentences flow as monotonously as the lives of men in the cylinder. But they irreproachably state facts, they are as mercilessly objective as could be demanded, they are full sentences just as surely as those are really human beings in the strange hell they create. In this respect Beckett has backed away from the run-on, non-syntactical fragments of his last major prose work, the novel How It Is. His current style would be hardly tolerable for writer or reader if it were sustained much beyond the length of The Last Once, a fact which may explain several similar as false starts to similar works.

Even as he draws near the final condition to which the cylinder is doomed, Beckett is willing to grant but an instant of irony: the admission that "in this old abode all is not yet quite for the best." Then, soon, the last searcher ceases searching and joins the ranks of the vanquished, and the last sentence comes, as exact and pitiless as the first: "So much roughly speaking for the last state of the cylinder and of this little people of searchers...if this notion is maintained."

The Lost Ones is not a story in any traditional sense, but the analytic creation of a paradigm for the base of our entire existence. However battered and strained the term is, the end of this relentless analysis is unavoidably the absurd. Even when the notion has been maintained to its fullest, a final explanation continues to elude it, and instead in its very absence mocks the exactness with which the analysis has been conducted.

The work succeeds in isolating and containing the absurd, in all its tedium and inexplicability, if only in a sort of dadaist image, a kind of giant coffee can with strobe light. The boredom is less involving than in Godot, the texture of the prose less rich than in the novels, but by maintaining its peculiar notion. The Lost Ones creates a super-metaphor with a life of its own. Beckett's latest book looks at the world with intent, unshrinking understanding--and touches its expression with an uncertain gleam of the playful.

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