In Search of The Lost Ones
By Simon Okotie (Creative Fellow, 2022-2023)
I first started searching for The Lost Ones on 30 March 1999 in Oaxaca’s English language lending library. This was the second year in a row I’d overwintered in Mexico – in part to avoid the darkness of that season in the UK, and partly to receive a solar boost in pursuit of completing my first novel, which I hoped to submit to a new literary prize set up by actress and author Marsha Hunt to encourage novels from black British or Irish writers, such books being a scarce commodity in those pre-Zadie days.
The previous winter (which was also mostly spent writing, reading, and learning Spanish at Oaxaca’s Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura) I had read Richard Ellmann’s unsurpassable biography of James Joyce and it was this that no doubt led me to pack Knowlson’s Damned to Fame as well as the Faber edition of Beckett’s Complete Dramatic Works for the subsequent trip. These I devoured, writing out numerous verbatim passages from the former and annotating the latter in my lonely room in San Felipe del Agua in the hills above the town.
I don’t know what it was that piqued my interest, in particular, in Beckett’s underappreciated story The Lost Ones. A few days before I first read it I’d met an Englishman and his half-Peruvian daughter in La Casa del Mezcal, a dive bar with a wild west feel on Flores Magón, and he’d said to me that he’d left the UK when he was only slightly younger than me and that he’d been lost. He asked me if I was lost and I told him I didn’t think so, yet my search for something – or someone – continued, a subsequent conversation with father and daughter somehow taking me, the following year, to another lonely dwelling place, this time in the foothills of the Andes in Chile, where my immersion in Beckett continued.
It may, in fact, have simply been the scarcity of works by, or about, Beckett in that small lending library in Oaxaca (with Deidre Bair’s biography being the only other one I can remember) that led me to The Lost Ones: I’d found something, in other words, that I’d not actually been looking for at the time. Whatever the cause, that first reading was indelible, the work’s large flattened cylinder inhabited by two hundred souls staying with me as I travelled.
In retrospect one of the things that interests me is the transitional nature of this text – situated, as it is, between the post-war prose, with what S. E. Gontarkski called its ‘compulsion to (and so solace in) motion’, and the late tales of enclosure ‘featuring stillness or some barely perceptible movement, at times just the breathing of a body or the trembling of a hand.’ The shift from journeying to a shelter or haven – often referred to as ‘home’ – to the later ‘closed space’ stories is announced in All Strange Away (1963-64) and its ‘sibling’, Imagination Dead Imagine (1965): “Out the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no not that again.’ It was with these texts that I decided to start my search, my first visit to the archive (in September 2022) involving looking at every draft of Imagination Morte Imaginez/Imagination Dead Imagine, thrilled to view copies of these handwritten manuscript pages with their doodles and mathematical workings out. It was in this way that I would edge myself, for whatever reason and with whatever outcome, towards The Lost Ones.
In Search of The Lost Ones – Part 2: The Model
In my first conversation with him about the Creative Fellowship, Prof. Conor Carville, one of the Centre’s co-directors, told me that the archive contained a model of a production of a stage version of The Lost Ones; in a subsequent meeting with Conor and the other co-director, Prof. Steven Mathews on the South Bank in London, I told them that an online reviewer had built a Lego model of my Two Degrees of Freedom, a short prose piece I’d written during the Covid lockdowns and which was published by Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press as a signed limited edition chapbook:
‘Now despite being a mathematician I am not blessed with great spatial-visualisation skills, and I must admit to resorting to Lego blocks to build the shape, but having done so, I can […] confirm the precision of Okotie’s descriptions.’ Paul Fulcher
I also told them I had been reading Marco Bernini’s recent book Beckett and the Cognitive Method – Minds, Models, and Exploratory Narratives. Bernini’s thesis is that Beckett inaugurated a process of ‘introspection by simulation’ through ‘fictional cognitive modelling’ – constructing narrative models to explore otherwise inaccessible aspects of mind – a model, for Bernini, being ‘a selective, abstract, hypothetical simplification of reality’ with a strong explanatory or exploratory potential.
It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that my eyes lit up, on my second visit to Reading as a Creative Fellow, on hearing Dr Matthew McFrederick, Co-Director of the Beckett International Foundation (the research centre’s sister organisation) highlight ‘the agency models have […in] support[ing] speculation, experimentation, trying and failing’. This was in relation to another set model held in the archive – a maquette designed by Peter Snow for the original London premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre in 1955, a performance that ‘represents one of the major transformative moments in post-war British theatre’. Rather than reflecting Beckett’s clear and simple stage directions – ‘A country road. A tree. Evening’ – the model, which is ‘a fusion of the indoors and the outdoors’, reflects the more typical English theatre settings of the time – for the plays, say, of Terrence Rattigan or Noel Coward. The model was donated to the archive by the UK’s first female professor of theatre, Katherine Worth, whose accompanying notes indicate that Beckett, on visiting Snow’s studio to inspect the model, showed an ‘interest in the room concept, though not for Godot’. This is intriguing, as Matt indicates, given that Beckett’s next play was Endgame, whose bare interior, with its two small ‘high up’ windows, was memorably likened to ‘the inside of an immense skull’ (by Hugh Kenner). (The archive also contains a model designed by Tom Piper for the 2016 production of Endgame at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.)
The talk was given in November 2022 during the centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations (delayed by a year due to the pandemic) in the Minghella Studios on campus. After the talk and subsequent discussions with Conor and Matt, my attempt to locate The Lost Ones within the archive became even more pressing.
In Search of the Lost Ones – Part 3: On His Last Legs
Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again. Five foot square, six high, no way in, none out, try for him there.
One of the things I didn’t mention to Conor and Steven during that initial meeting on the South Bank (for fear of putting them off) was how excited I was by the possibility of travelling more or less directly from London’s east end, where I live, to the Beckett archive in Reading on the newly opened Elizabeth line (formerly known as Crossrail). This was a project I worked on, as a transport consultant, having returned from my travels in Latin America, a period that encompassed that first indelible reading of The Lost Ones in Oaxaca’s English language lending library as well as a final trip, to Chile, where I read the Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and Christopher Rick’s Beckett’s Dying Words, a work of criticism.
The link between language and locomotion in Beckett’s work is reflected in characters who are ‘often completely or progressively reduced to a degree of immobility that parallels the impoverishment of their narrative control’ (according to Bernini). This ‘mutual deterioration’ is perhaps best reflected in Molloy, the wearer of that old post-war hat and coat, who, in the course of the first half of the novel, transitions from the ‘erect motion, that of a man’ (albeit one assisted , on occasion, by bicycle or crutch), to ‘crawling on his belly, like a reptile’, before ending up literally and metaphorically in a ditch, his narrative deteriorating accordingly.
The hat and coat might also fit another post-war Beckett character, who, having disembarked a train, proceeds in the following manner:
[His] way of advancing due east […] was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north…
I read Watt while seconded to Crossrail, but had forgotten about this surprising perambulatory method, and am grateful to Conor for putting me onto this recreation of it by Bruce Nauman: his ‘Slow Angle Walk’.
Watt is in pursuit of Knott, and there is, perhaps, a nod to the negation (really, then, a double negation) of that post-war approach in Beckett’s ‘no, not that again.’ Instead we have the abrupt commencement of enclosure featuring ‘some barely perceptible movement’ often entailing ‘the perception of a figure in various postures, like an exercise in human origami’, according to Gontarski. This enclosure – along with its encompassing possibility of companionship, however bleak, however remote – continues, in different forms, from All Strange Away’s cuboid quoted above, which is ‘tightened’ to three foot square, five high, around a solitary male figure, its ceiling then further lowered ‘down two foot’ to form, now, momentarily, a ‘perfect cube’, before becoming the rotunda ‘as in the Pantheon of Rome or certain beehive tombs’ that is taken forward into Imagination Dead Imagine and which there contains ‘two white bodies’, a male and a female, lying on the ground, both on their right sides, ‘back to back head to arse’, ‘each in its own semicircle’, through to the one who is ‘perhaps not alone’ within Ping’s ‘[w]hite walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen’ (the focus of my second visit to the archive, on 2 December 2022), to the flattened sixteen-metre-high cylindrical abode ‘where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one.’
The trajectory is also reflected in Enough, another short prose piece from this period. While not a ‘closed space’ story, it is nevertheless a continuation of the evolution (or, rather, degeneration) of the form.
In the beginning he always spoke walking. So it seems to me now. Then sometimes walking and sometimes still. In the end still only. And the voice getting fainter all the time.
Here the figures are (probably) male and female, the former much older than the latter – a father figure, nearly blind; they tramp the hills hand-in-hand learning the constellations, their posture at rest, seemingly outside, that of being ‘[w]edged together bent in three. Second right angle at the knees. I on the inside.’ (My take is that this touches upon Beckett’s relationship with James Joyce, who he fell out with (‘my disgrace’) over Joyce’s daughter Lucia: ‘One day he told me to leave him. It’s the verb he used. He must have been on his last legs.’ No doubt others have written about this association, although I’ve not yet found any reference to it.)
In Search of The Lost Ones – Part 4: In which, yes, I finally found The Lost Ones
what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before
peering out of my deadlight looking for another
wandering like me eddying far from all the living
in a convulsive space
among the voices voiceless
that throng my hiddenness
I didn’t make the connection at the time, just over a year after I first read The Lost Ones, but the final destination on my travels in Latin America was a place that resembled, in some respects, the enclosed space of the story. The port city of Valparaíso in Chile is built around a circular bay on dozens of hillsides overlooking the Pacific, with a ‘New World’ grid of public and commercial buildings at its lower level and a labyrinth of residential streets and cobblestone alleyways in its upper levels. Connecting the two are precipitous and dilapidated ascensores, or funiculars, of various heights and capacities.
The upper and lower sections of the sixteen metre high and nearly sixteen metre wide cylinder containing the lost ones is linked by a series of ladders that ‘vary greatly in size’, the shortest measuring ‘not less than six metres’, the longest enabling ‘the tallest climbers [to] touch the ceiling with their fingertips’. The ladders, whose rungs are intermittently and unpredictably absent, are used to convey ‘the searchers’ – each of the cylinder’s two hundred lost bodies still searching for its lost one – to the niches or alcoves, some of which are connected by tunnels, that are located in the upper reaches.
I was reading Beckett’s Selected Poems as I drifted around the grid, listlessly descending and ascending the ascensores, his what would I do without this world (above) perfectly capturing the atmosphere of both spaces and my mood at the time. What was becoming clear was that I’d not found whatever or whoever it was I’d been looking for when I’d embarked on the journey more than two years previously.
When I emailed in January to request access to the model of The Lost Ones I received a reply to the effect (not unreasonably) that they didn’t know what I was looking for. I replied that I thought what I was seeking was located in the reading room rather than the archive and that I would try and find it when I arrived. It turned out to be hiding in plain sight opposite the entrance to the open access bookshelves that I’d so delighted in on my first visit.