A Coun­try Road, A Tree

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - by Jo Baker, Al­fred A. Knopf, 289 pages

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No mat­ter. Try again. Fail again. Fail bet­ter.” — Sa­muel Beck­ett, Worstward Ho (1983)

There are a few things that might sur­prise you about Sa­muel Beck­ett. Here’s one: He’s the an­swer to the trivia ques­tion, “Who is the only first-class crick­eter to ever win a No­bel Prize?” Beck­ett, who won his No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1969, was a star left-handed

bats­man and bowler at Dublin Univer­sity. He was, in fact, quite a sports­man. In school, young Sam played cricket and rugby, won medals for swim­ming, and was a light-heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion. Beck­ett played golf, ran, cy­cled and mo­tor­cy­cled. When he set­tled in Paris in the ’30s, he re­mained an avid ten­nis player, just as Ernest Hem­ing­way had in the decade be­fore.

It was his liv­ing in Paris that set the stage for what may be the most re­mark­able and lit­tle-known chap­ter in the life of the le­gendary Ir­ish nov­el­ist and play­wright. As the Nazis oc­cu­pied his adopted city and

be­gan round­ing up Jews and send­ing them to con­cen­tra­tion camps, Beck­ett joined a cell of Re­sis­tance spies and fight­ers. His work in es­pi­onage con­tin­ued through the war, de­spite his nearly be­ing caught by the Gestapo when a traitor be­trayed his group to the Germans in 1942.

This is the Beck­ett around whom Bri­tish nov­el­ist Jo Baker has built her novel of es­pi­onage, des­per­a­tion, and star­va­tion in France dur­ing WW II. She be­gins with a pref­ace, set in 1919, in which a boy in Ire­land climbs a tree, de­ter­mined to fly. He leaps, crashes to the ground, gets up, ex­am­ines his bruises, and climbs the tree again.

We are never told the name of the boy, or the man. Baker writes in the third per­son, but the Beck­ett char­ac­ter, un­named, re­ferred to only as “Ir­ish” or “the Ir­ish­man” when clarification is needed, is firmly en­trenched at the cen­ter; and we are em­bed­ded there with him, see­ing only what he sees, hear­ing and feel­ing only what he feels and hears. The pre­sent­tense nar­ra­tive is thick and en­velop­ing, and there are few wide shots.

The main ac­tion of the novel be­gins in 1939, when vis­it­ing his mother back home in Ire­land, he hears the news of France’s dec­la­ra­tion of war on Ger­many. “That’s that,” his mother says. “You can’t go back now.” He tells her he has to go back. He’s promised all his friends. She looks at him. “‘And what pos­si­ble use,’ she asks, ‘do you imag­ine you would be?’ ”

This quest for use­ful­ness is one of the per­vad­ing traits on which Baker builds the char­ac­ter of young Beck­ett. The need to be of use nags at him. What good is he do­ing, in a Paris that his friends are flee­ing? He has not yet been able to get identity pa­pers

es­tab­lish­ing him as a le­gal for­eign res­i­dent. He tries to be use­ful to James and Nora Joyce, who are leav­ing Paris. He tries to be use­ful to his Jewish friends. “He is no use to any­one at all. He feels, for once, and only briefly, quite con­tent,” Baker writes.

That feel­ing doesn’t last, and it is not long be­fore he is drawn into a Re­sis­tance group by his friend Jean­nine Pi­cabia, the daugh­ter of the Cu­bist painter. As an Ir­ish­man he is tech­ni­cally neu­tral in the war, but the un­fold­ing Nazi hor­ror makes in­ac­tion un­ten­able. He has to be use­ful.

He’s re­ally not much in­volved in cloak and dag­ger in Paris. He acts as a courier, he does some trans­la­tion. Mostly he smokes and drinks — and goes hun­gry, in part be­cause he gives his ra­tion cards to friends in greater need. Af­ter his Re­sis­tance cell is blown, he has a nar­row es­cape, and spends some time hid­ing un­der the floor­boards of an apart­ment, pass­ing the time study­ing Rus­sian. He re­flects on the na­ture and the dif­fer­ences be­tween lan­guages. (Beck­ett wrote in French, and trans­lated his own work into his na­tive English.) “An English sen­tence is a brick. To build with, yes, a solid struc­ture one can in­habit. But also a di­vid­ing wall, a clos­ing off; a lim­i­ta­tion.”

Baker is nec­es­sar­ily, in a novel with Sa­muel Beck­ett as its pro­tag­o­nist, ab­sorbed with mat­ters of writ­ing and of lan­guage. Some­times her ef­fort to sug­gest French phras­ing in English can get her in trou­ble. She is fond of the French ex­pres­sion “Oh, la vache!,” which she trans­lates lit­er­ally as “Oh, the cow!” and re­vis­its it a num­ber of times. To a reader un­fa­mil­iar with the mean­ing of the id­iom (some­thing like “Oh, jeez!”), this can get a lit­tle pre­cious.

Baker weaves in cir­cum­stances and events that fore­shadow some of Beck­ett’s most fa­mous writ­ing. In Rous­sil­lon, where he and his lover Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumes­nil flee to es­cape ar­rest by the Germans in Paris, they dis­cuss an im­pend­ing con­tact that has been set up with a mem­ber of the Maquis: “How will we know that it’s him?” “Who else could it be?” It’s easy to imag­ine that di­a­logue in the mouths of Vladimir and Es­tragon in Wait­ing for Godot, the Beck­ett clas­sic from whose open­ing de­scrip­tive lines this novel takes its ti­tle.

In Rous­sil­lon (the house there where Beck­ett and Suzanne lived is, or was re­cently, up for sale), he con­tin­ues his dan­ger­ous re­sis­tance work, much to Suzanne’s dis­plea­sure. He also makes the ac­quain­tance of his neigh­bor Anna Beamish, an Ir­ish ex­pat writer, and they dis­cuss the im­por­tance of writ­ing. Beck­ett has lost his be­lief that it’s still worth­while. “I just can’t see the point of it at all.” She tells him, with a bit of a twin­kle in her eye, that the best rea­son is spite. “And then, of course, it’s nec­es­sary.” “Nec­es­sary?” “If one is not writ­ing, one is not quite one­self, don’t you find?” As Beck­ett re­flects on the truth of this, Miss Beamish adds: “It’s like snails make slime ... One will never get along, much less be com­fort­able, if one doesn’t write.” Baker, whose crit­i­cally ac­claimed 2013 novel Long­bourn in­verted Pride

and Prej­u­dice in much the way Tom Stop­pard’s Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead did for Hamlet, cre­ates a com­pellingly real ex­pe­ri­ence out of Beck­ett’s work in the French un­der­ground. Her writ­ing is as­sured and of­ten in­tense, de­spite an oc­ca­sional ten­dency to repet­i­tive de­tail (peo­ple keep short­en­ing or ad­just­ing their stride to keep pace with their com­pan­ions, for ex­am­ple).

In later years, Sa­muel Beck­ett was re­luc­tant to dis­cuss much about his wartime ex­pe­ri­ences, but he did open up a few times to friends and his bi­og­ra­pher, and in re­cent years, pre­vi­ously clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence files have be­come avail­able that doc­u­ment some of the clan­des­tine ac­tiv­i­ties in which he was in­volved. This is ma­te­rial that Baker has been able to draw on, and she uses it to take us back in­side an en­thralling and lit­tle­known episode in the life of a mas­ter crick­eter and No­bel Prize-win­ning au­thor. — Jonathan Richards

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