The Lost Ones
More Pricks Than Kicks
The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett
At the very end of Endgame, Hamm grates out his gratitude to his bloodstained handkerchief: “Old stancher! You…remain.” It is what you want to say by way of gratitude to Beckett himself: “Old stancher.” How right that after a conscientious pause Hamm should come up with the bleak minimum of “remain”—not “You…are faithful,” just “You…remain.” In the old days, in his first book of fiction, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), which he has now at last allowed to be reissued, Beckett watched his act of stanching: “They were really too numerous, she could not go through the entire list. She stanched her mouth.”
As the years have gone by, Beckett has more and more stanched his mouth. Terseness has tautened. The preoccupations are still what they were. The first story in More Pricks is “Dante and the Lobster,” and it is a story about how the death of a murderer, the death of a lobster, the long day’s dying of Cain, and the immortality so cruelly conferred—indeed, insisted upon—by the Christian God and itself then so finely immortalized (as we falsely say of art) by Dante, all cuttingly underscore “the poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction.”
These words, from Beckett’s essay on Proust (1931), are apt to The Lost Ones, Beckett’s translation from his French text, Le Dépeupleur (Editions de Minuit, 1970). With a truer sense of loss (because a less willed, less diagrammatic one) than in Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), The Lost Ones imagines the death of imagination, the end of life on the planet. People live within a cylinder. Those who searched, who climbed the ladders to the alcoves and niches, or who moved at any rate their eyes, are one by one frozen into lifelessness. The light and the temperature continue to obey their pulsing rule; the human beings still do their meticulous best (from metus, fear) to abide by the deranged, civilized, intricate code which governs the use of the ladders and the permitted movements. Only one name is mentioned in the fifty-five pages of The Lost Ones, so it is a name honored indeed: “Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.” “Rare” there has to mean “of especial value” as well as “infrequent”—and so it had been long ago in “Dante and the Lobster”:
“It occurred to me” she said “apropos of I don’t know what, that you might do worse than make up Dante’s rare movements of compassion in Hell. That used to be” her past tenses were always sorrowful “a favourite question.”
He assumed an expression of profundity.
“In that connexion” he said “I recall one superb pun anyway:
‘qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta…’ ”
She said nothing.
“Is it not a great phrase?” he gushed.
“Why not piety and pity both, even down …