A novel take on Beckett’s bleak war years
A Country Road, A Tree By Jo Baker Doubleday, 335pp, $32.99
Samuel Beckett had been living in Paris for almost two years when war broke out in 1939. He might have spent the war years in his native Ireland (which maintained its neutrality throughout the war), but he found the atmosphere too stifling. As his biographer James Knowlson wrote, Beckett was irritated by the “parochialism and narrow-mindedness” of Ireland and this, combined with his mother’s endless fussing over him and her “active disapproval” of his determination to write, choked his creativity.
But there was another reason to stay in Paris. Beckett had recently formed a relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, a French woman whom (Beckett wrote to a friend) he was “fond of, dispassionately, and who is very good to me”.
When, in mid-1940, Paris fell to the Germans, Beckett and Suzanne joined the exodus out of the city. Beckett still hadn’t managed to get hold of the papers that would legitimise his presence in France, and the pair was forced to travel undercover to Vichy, and then on to Arcachon, a seaside village in the southwest of the country.
A few months after the occupation of Paris, Beckett and Suzanne returned to the city, and soon Beckett found himself drawn into the Resistance, working with “Gloria SMH”, a unit of the British Special Operations Executive. (Beckett later told Knowlson, “You just couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.”)
When the cell was betrayed by a Catholic priest, Beckett and Suzanne went on the run, ending up in Roussillon (in the southeast of France) where, again, Beckett involved himself in the Resistance, training to sabotage any German patrols that might venture through the village. After the war, Beckett was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Francaise for his efforts.
It’s Beckett’s war years that are the subject of Jo Baker’s audacious new novel, A Country Road, A Tree. Baker is not a writer to shy away from literary heavyweights. Her previous novel, Longbourn, took on the story of Pride & Prejudice, reimagining it from the perspective of the “downstairs” characters, and managing to weave into the seams of Jane Austen’s story a darker, earthier thread.
Here, she confronts Beckett head-on (though without ever naming him). While not straying far from the biographical record, Baker nevertheless brings to Beckett’s story a penetrating imagination, opening out an emotional substructure in this story of wartime survival, and exhuming from Beckett’s experience of war the bleak imagery, the unsettling poetry, and “the community of the dispossessed” that would come to mark his oeuvre.
One short passage will demonstrate what Baker achieves here:
He opens his eyes again, and the reflected moon breaks, resolves, and breaks, and this is the lie of it, the willing delusion – there is nothing eternal here. Given time enough – and time just keeps on ticking by – even this will cease … the moon itself will fall into dust and there will be no one left to contemplate it.