A Country Road, A Tree
by Jo Baker
When war came to Europe in 1939, Samuel Beckett was a published but largely unknown and unread Irish writer working in the long shadow of James Joyce, for whom he’d served as a literary secretary in Paris while the great man was writing Finnegans Wake.
By the end of the war six years later, Beckett was well on his way to becoming the markedly different writer who would shortly unveil Waiting for Godot and who is now justly remembered as one of the previous century’s literary giants.
A Country Road, A Tree – Jo Baker’s moving, beautifully written and riveting historical novel – explores Beckett’s movements as he tried to survive the second world war in various parts of France.
Beckett did much of his moving during those years because he had no choice.
In the autumn of 1939, Beckett didn’t have papers authorising his ongoing stay in France. By the time he did, he was active in the French Resistance, triggering a hasty flight south after his underground cell was betrayed. While hiding in southern France, he was aiding the fighters preparing to rise up after the Allies landed.
Baker makes clear how often Beckett might have chosen differently: staying in Ireland rather than returning from a visit there in September 1939; emigrating to America like other artists were doing; focusing on his writing and blocking out all going on beyond the walls of his tiny apartment.
“You don’t have to look,” Estragon says to Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. “You can’t help looking,” Vladimir replies. “Try as one may.”
In one of the scenes Baker has imagined, Suzanne, Beckett’s lifelong companion, says: “The war will end.” Beckett replies: “We have to do something. I can’t just wait to see what happens.”
Starting with her title, taken from the terse stage direction that opens Godot, Baker draws many understated parallels between Beckett’s wartime experience and what would become his most famous play.
There’s the constant hunger, often only relieved by a carrot. A nearly dead tree. The sore feet and stinking boots of refugees on the run. And even the mysterious figure of the play’s messenger boy, who in Baker’s novel is among those involved in helping refugees cross to safety.
Most important, there’s the abiding sense – shared by Beckett and the tramps in Godot – that one must keep on. “They don’t know where they’re going,” Baker writes of Beckett and Suzanne at one point, “but they go.” At another point we are told: “Human bodies share the almost nothing they have, and go on living.”
In continuing amid such privation – while afflicted by memories of those we’ll meet who don’t make it to the other side of the war – the Beckett envisioned here finds his answer to the question that dogs an early Beckett novel such as Murphy (1938): “After Joyce, what is the point of writing? What else is there to say?”
Struggling to answer that question, this novel’s Beckett simultaneously struggles with the sense that all words are inadequate – not because they’ve been exhausted by precursors such as Joyce, but rather because writing itself has become “ethically suspect”, in a world where meaning and communication seem impossible.
As Baker recognises in recreating the moment and room where it happened, Beckett’s epiphany entailed moving towards this darkness rather than running away from it or trying to go around it.
“The darkness has become a solid thing,” Baker writes, describing Beckett’s thoughts as he drives through a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, 1945. “It’s racing away from his headlights … he is chasing after the dark, and he will slam right through it, into whatever it is that lies beyond.”
Baker adds up the tolls paid along the way, particularly with regard to Beckett’s relationship with Suzanne. As his tramps recognise in Godot, decline and decay are inevitable. “But that doesn’t mean,” Beckett reflects here, “it wasn’t worth the doing.” That goes double for Baker’s novel.
Tribune News Service