A novel take on Beck­ett’s bleak war years

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diane Stub­bings

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.

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