A Country Road, a Tree by Jo Baker: Beckett proves elusive in forced resurrection
A fictionalised account of the writer’s life in occupied France is strong on narrative but weak on Beckett’s relationship with his lover, Suzanne, writes Eoin McNamee
A Country Road, A Tree
Winter 1939. Paris has fallen to the Germans. The intelligentsia whisper in their salons. Samuel Beckett has returned from Ireland and occupies an apartment with his lover, Suzanne Dechevaux- Dumesnil. In the next few years will come oppression and privation, the arrest and deportation of friends – Paul Léon, Alfred Péron – resistance, betrayal and a harrowing journey.
Jo Baker’s new novel is framed by the war years, 1939-45. The point of view is that of Beckett himself and the centre of the novel is Beckett and Suzanne’s journey south from Paris to Roussillon after they have come to the notice of the Gestapo.
Baker has done this before. Her previous novel Longbourn took the point of view of servants in Pride and Prejudice. The approach is taken a step further in A Country Road, a Tree. Words are put in Beckett’s mouth, thoughts in his head. We listen to the lovers’ conversations, eavesdrop on their thoughts. We follow them into their bed.
There is transgression here. There’s no point in asking whether Beckett would have liked it. He wouldn’t. But you can’t deny the novelist’s entitlement to go hunting for material among the dead, nor should their feelings be spared. The poet and undertaker Thomas McCarthy maintains that the dead shouldn’t be allowed to tell the living what to do and he has a point. What matters is that it is done well and that depends on where you’re standing. If you’re looking for a Samuel Beckett who exists for the purpose of telling a good story you’re in the right place. The writer who sought his art among the unuttered can only be absent.
The strength of the book is in the conventional narrative. A troubled man and his lover flee from war through war as their involvement with the Resistance becomes known. Beckett dismissed his involvement with the Maquis as boy-scout stuff but the risks involved in even a small act of defiance were stark. The movement he joins is amateurish. Beckett and Suzanne and the foolhardy others live in terror of the lorry turning into the street at night, jackboots on the stairs. In the end they are betrayed and forced to flee, running south towards a long exile.
Beckett’s teeth are bad. He has boils. His feet are at him. He’s worn to the bone by illness and edgy living. Money is always a problem. He’s too fond of the drink. He doesn’t know how to get out from under Joyce’s shadow. Embarrassed by going cap in hand to Joyce for money, wounded by news that Joyce has died. This Beckett is likeable despite himself, has integrity and resilience.
Unravelling the writer is a different matter. Artists’ influences are encrypted even to themselves, and trying to guess at them is a dangerous business. In Paris we get Beckett viewing Georges Rouault’s L’Hiver. On the journey south he is reminded of Casper Frederich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon. We get an incomplete assignation under a half-dead tree. The brutally exposed teeth of a civilian murdered in a German reprisal prefigures Not I. Darkness is all about.
Was that the way of it? Was the journey towards the relative safety of Roussillon an equivalence of Beckett’s journey towards his postwar aesthetic?
When you insert yourself into Beckett’s point of view you have to be able to stand it up. Baker writes well. She is insightful, demanding of her sentences. The tension, the fear, the sheer grind of life under occupation and the toll that it takes are here. The story is beautifully paced, the research lightly worn. The novel is written in the present tense (“He flattens out the page. He dips his pen into the ink...’) which gives the prose a handheld feel, authentic, narrow in focus.
In the end, Beckett can take anything that is thrown at him. The cold vision is not dimmed by anything that might be done or said with his character. Suzanne feels more intruded upon. They are commonplace lovers in this telling. Suzanne is irritated by his drinking, his inattention, the fact that he stores munitions for the Resistance in their house when they reach Roussillon.
More than that it is his perceived indifference to her that rankles. They bicker. In Roussillon Beckett avoids her when he thinks she is in a mood.
You feel that the lovers’ story lacks an organic connection, is forced, and the writing is at its least authentic. Every couple bickers, loses faith, finds themselves taking up positions from which they might once have shied, but something doesn’t ring true. Dechevaux-Dumesnil was said to be austere. Here she veers close to being unsympathetic. There’s a first flush of passion and afterwards their lovemaking is utilitarian. She becomes a “thread of guilt”. But Dechevaux-Dumesnil was an intellectual in her own right and an avant- gardist who became Beckett’s wife in 1961 and was with him until death. You sense a deep, private and possibly difficult connection which is not served here.
There is a lot going on under the surface with A Country Road, a Tree. There is the craft of a good novelist at work. There is the insistent postmillennial rhythm of the present-tense prose. And there is the attachment of fiction to a real person – a sign that invention in the novel form is running out of steam, that some other means of addressing the world is required. Art being as elusive now as it was in the middle of the last century.
At the end of the war Beckett comes home to Foxrock. His epiphany arrives in a dusk bedroom in his mothers house, the final separation from Joyce. “All that wild Shem-beloved hubbub falls away and his eyes are trained on darkness and his ears on silence.” He longs for Paris but bureaucracy gets in the way – he has to ship out with the Red Cross to Normandy. He works with the Red Cross but in the end gives up the job and returns to Paris, rebuking himself for giving up a paid job. Suzanne is waiting. These are to be the defining years. There is a desk, a notebook, pen and ink. Suzanne and Beckett are left alone. The writer sets to work.
Eoin McNamee is the author of the Blue trilogy