THE ASSUMPTION OF THE ROGUES & RASCALS by Elizabeth Smart (HarperCollins: $8; 112 pp.). "How can Samuel Beckett be so witty in his agony?" asks Elizabeth Smart's narrator (who is sometimes addressed in this slender novel, or soliloquy--almost a poem, actually--as Elizabeth Smart). "Now I know. Once you start speaking, of course, the agony lessens--memory of it is near, but relief makes laughter. Already tragedy turns to comedy, a better form."

Beckett readily comes to mind as we read the Canadian-born Smart, who died in England in 1986. Best known for "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept," she views life--especially a woman's life--as a hopeless trap that humor, endurance and the act of writing can ameliorate but hardly spring. Love leads to children (Smart had four); lovers are fickle but children stick around "for the duration." All a woman can look forward to is "long years to slog through," then drinks and chatter with other oldsters at a pub. So summarized, Smart, like Beckett, sounds gloomy and reductive, but, also like Beckett, she makes gloom the occasion for language "like flowers floating luminously in the gloaming"--language that may not reflect any fulfillment of her characters' "profound vague ravenous longings" but nonetheless gleams fitfully in the dark.

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