A Country Road, A Tree
By Jo Baker
289 pages, $26.95
By Michael D. Langan
Jo Baker is a sensitive English writer of historical fiction, now called by some when it refers to an individual life, a “bio-fiction.” Born in Lancashire, she has a book, “Longbourn,” broadly derivative of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a national best-seller and New York Times Notable Book, being considered for a film. Her other novels include “The Undertow,” “The Telling,” “The Mermaid’s Child” and “Offcomer.”
Baker went to Oxford to study English literature when she was 18. She moved back to Belfast in 1995 to do an MA in Irish Writing. Living there again with the cease-fire just having taken place was a relief. And, as Baker remarks, the city was buzzing with life, energy and writers. She got a Ph.D., married in 2000, became a mom, and somehow all of this multitudinous activity enlivened her writing skills. At present she lives in Lancaster, England.
In her new novel, “A Country Road, A Tree,” she writes about Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) leaving his mother’s house in Ireland and returning to Nazi-occupied Paris in 1939 to be with his lover, Suzanne.
I can’t get too worked up with her portrait of Beckett. He’s a mess. At this point, he’s written nothing, indulged in too much drink, has wretched teeth, hoary breath, boils and bad feet. The poor devil is an argument for universal health care.
Suzanne gets him semi-squared away. Out for a walk “she slips her arm through his. He shortens his stride for her, and this synchronization makes her smile. She breathes the warmth of tobacco and shaving soap and wine. Their footfalls clip across the Place Saint-Michel … He didn’t have to come back. But here he is … She leans against him and all is well.” Our author puts the following words, (his explanation for telling the auld sod to “sod off”), in Beckett’s mouth: “I can hardly breathe there in Ireland, I certainly can’t write.”
An aside: In time, remember that Beckett overcame this debility spectacularly. He was a novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. He lived in Paris most of his life, writing in both French and English. Considered a minimalist, his oeuvre makes “bleak” look glorious. His 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature notes the value of his writing. His award lauded “new forms for the novel and drama,” concluding that by Beckett’s portrayal of “the destitution of modern man [does he] acquire his elevation.”
There continues to be an incredible amount of “destitution of modern man” around. Those experiencing it, except for saints, will hardly acknowledge being elevated by it. The Nobel phrase is a clever piece of wordplay, but still baloney.
Baker’s Beckett longs to see his semi-friend, James Joyce, “go out drinking with him, lose himself in the wash of booze and talk,” but , the Joyces are away, back again, then gone. Their daughter, Lucia, is having mental problems which they don’t seem to be able to accommodate. Son Giorgio is in danger of being drafted unless they move to Switzerland.
Beckett and Suzanne are of a type, what Jo Baker calls “a community of unbelonging” in Paris. They are people on the street that one cannot avoid, “unmissable: the shabby-smart, the hounded, the dispossessed. When overheard, their accents vary, but there is a definite type: educated, thoughtful, softly spoken, terrified. They are the jetsam of half a dozen different nations; they’re fragile and exhausted. They’ve been washed up here by the floods at home.”
Some have confidence in the Maginot line, that burrow of tunnels and fortifications that were supposed to keep the “Huns” away from France. About this Beckett is presented as thinking, “The Line! Don’t talk to me about the line. The Germans are prepared, that is the thing that nobody seems to understand, that while we’ve been sitting on our arses behind the Maginot line playing cards and scratching ourselves, Germany has been f---ing out smoke and s---ing artillery.”
Beckett and Suzanne cannot go on waiting. They think, “The key is to do something. Because that’s better than sitting around doing nothing.”
War is declared, Joyce dies and Beckett joins the resistance. He and Suzanne are betrayed by their cell. The reference in the title indicates where Beckett and Suzanne waited in misery to be rescued in the countryside. The Nazis are close by and their wish is to make it south to Roussillon, with the hope of a makeover in life.
The title also refers to the stage direction on the first page of Beckett’s masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot”: “A country road. A tree.”
Baker writes well but like most other admirers of Beckett, she doesn’t get into his head intellectually. Thus, to take up “A Country Road, A Tree,” you must enjoy conjecture over what real life has to offer if you wish to indulge in bio-fiction.
It is an indulgence.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News.