A Country Road, A Tree
“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