A Country Road, A Tree, Jo Baker, Alfred A Knopf, 2016.
Last night, I went to bed at around 10pm and intended to read for 20 minutes before going to sleep. When next I looked at the clock it was 12.30 and my eyes were feeling increasingly gritty and I noticed the dull thud of an impending headache, but I read on. Later, when I read the final line and closed the book with a contented sigh, it was nearly 1.45am. It has been an absolute age since I’ve felt so captivated by a book that I stayed up late reading. Despite being really tired, it felt all kinds of wonderful to have been so engrossed in the world Jo Baker created, and I felt as though she had shot a little dart on a string from her brain to mine, or maybe from her heart to mine.
And so, now I have read two fantastic books in the space of a few weeks, although this one has knocked Margaret the First into second place as far as my best read of the year goes. I would like to encourage everyone to read it, but I doubt that it’s everyone’s cup of tea, seeing as how it’s a re-creation of Samuel Becket’s experiences in France during World War II. I don’t usually get along with most biographical fiction, but Baker has done a stellar job with this book. She sticks to the known facts and, more interestingly, makes use of many of the themes, metaphors, and features of Becketts’s own writing, somehow bringing him to life at the same time as creating a compelling story in a style that feels decidedly Beckettian.
I was a bit hesitant to pick up the book in the first place, after my disappointing experience with Baker’s Longbourn. Oh, I liked the writing, and I liked the idea of re-telling Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, but I could not like how she portrayed Mr and Mrs Bennet, or the backstory she invented for them. I was worried that she had done something similar with Beckett, but as soon as I started reading I realised that I was going to like this book a great deal. I really enjoyed Baker’s imagining of James Joyce: almost blind, dapper, insistent, oblivious, self-centred, carelessly cruel and offhandedly kind. And then there is the push and pull of Beckett’s affection for Joyce and his nostalgia for old times mixed with his bafflement at the distance now grown between them, and his need to slough off Joyce’s influence and to discover his own style of writing.
For those who don’t know, Samuel Beckett (yes, the Beckett who wrote Waiting for Godot), was in England visiting his mother when war was declared, but he would rather be in France during wartime than in Ireland (where his mother was), so he high-tailed it back to his cold garret apartment and his vastly interesting girlfriend, Suzanne. Just before the Germans invaded Paris, Beckett and Suzanne fled, becoming just another two bodies in the vast crush of people trying to escape, but when it became apparent that not a lot had changed in the city, they returned and tried to carry on as usual. However, Beckett soon became involved with the Resistance and did some valuable work for about a year, until the cell to which he belonged was betrayed by a Catholic priest and most of his friends were rounded up by the Gestapo. He and Suzanne managed to escape, and with the help of many brave people made their way, slowly and painfully, on foot, to the Free Zone where they lived under assumed identities. When the Germans invaded there too, the escapees’ lives were once more in danger, but they had nowhere else to go so they stayed put and hoped that no one would betray them. Beckett worked on a farm in exchange for food, and Suzanne gave piano lessons and did what she could to help them survive. It was, of course, a time of great fear and hunger, and boredom, as they waited and waited to see what would happen next. Once again, Beckett got involved with the Resistance and risked his life by going out at night to retrieve munitions dropped by parachute, and helping to hide and cache the weapons for future use against the enemy. The war was declared over before local fighting took place, but he and his comrades were ready to take on the invaders if need be. After the war, Beckett went to Ireland to visit his ailing mother and then returned to France as a Red Cross worker, because that’s the only way he could get back into the country. When his contract ended, he was able to return to Paris and take up residence once more in his cold garret apartment, where he claimed the time and space and solitude that enabled him to write and write and write. Oh, and he was reunited with Suzanne, but by this time they were companions rather than lovers. They stayed together and married in 1961, a few years after Beckett met the other great love of his life, Barbara Bray. It’s all very complicated, really, but it seems that both women were important and necessary to him in different ways and for different reasons.
The lovely thing that came through in this book is Beckett’s innate humanity and decency. He was, by all accounts, a kind and compassionate man, and I think Baker manages to capture his character beautifully. In conjunction with A Country Road, A Tree, I’ve been re-reading parts of Damned to Fame : The Life of Samuel Beckett and Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett : Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him. I seem to have disappeared down the Beckett rabbit hole, so I think I’m going to have to re-read Damned to Fame in its entirety, along with some of Beckett’s fiction, which I haven’t touched for a couple of years now.
Anyway, for fans of Beckett, or those interested in him and his work, A Country Road is sure to prove a most interesting read. I loved it. I didn’t want the book to end and I wish Baker would write the next chapter in his life, but I’m sure she’s feeling rather exhausted after the effort she put into this book. The title, by the way, is taken from the stage directions for the first act of Waiting for Godot [A country Road. A tree. Evening.], and there’s a wonderful Godot-like scene in the novel where Beckett and Suzanne wait under a tree on the side of a road for a guide to appear. He is supposed to turn up and show them the way to a safe place where they can rest until it’s time to cross into the Free Zone, but he doesn’t arrive and they wait and wait, and talk about nothing. Sound familiar? Also, unsurprisingly, there are a great many mentions of boots in the novel. 🙂