Jo Baker’s new novel, “A Country Road, a Tree,” is based on the experiences of Irish author Samuel Beckett in wartime France, as the playwright endured war’s deprivations and fought with the Resistance. Baker appears Tuesday, May 24, at the Seattle Public Library.
‘A Country Road, a Tree’
by Jo Baker
Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95
Tucked away at the end of Jo Baker’s new novel, “A Country Road, A Tree,” is the Author’s Note — normally a fairly inconsequential nicety that can be safely ignored. Not this time. It is in Baker’s note that the reader discovers that the unnamed protagonist of the novel is Samuel Beckett, the famous Irish-born author of “Waiting for Godot.” Baker’s title is taken from “Godot”; the novel re-imagines Beckett’s life from 1939, when his disapproving mother urges him to stay in Ireland at the outbreak of World War II, through his heroic work in the French Resistance, and finally to his full emergence as a writer at the war’s end.
Why not use Beckett’s name in the novel about him? Baker told one interviewer, “In early drafts I used his name, and really felt shy around him: the writing was timid. I felt outfaced by his brilliance and erudition … But once his name was gone, the writing became freer, more intimate. I could get past the genius, and into the compassionate and funny and generous man.” Baker will read Tuesday, May 24, at the Seattle Public Library.
Readers who loved Baker’s previous novel “Longbourn,” which sneaks behind the scenes of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to see the Bennets through their servants’ eyes, should know that this new novel is definitely not “Longbourn Redux.” It shares some of the gritty realities of its predecessor, but the war — with its dangers and privations — is a palpable presence that places the newer novel squarely in the 20th century.
The author of “A Country Road, a Tree” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
In Paris during 1939-40, hobnobbing with James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp, Beckett muses that their civilized artsy evenings can’t conceal the fact that “the axis of the world had already tipped and was sliding toward disaster.” He and his girlfriend Suzanne (later his wife) soon discover that occupied France is a horrific and unsafe place to be.
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The privations of wartime — no food, no money, no heat, inadequate clothing, horrendous tooth decay — are described in vivid and very extensive detail. As Beckett vainly struggles with writer’s block, “ … his empty stomach whines and pops; his feet are a torment of chilblains, his nose is ice.”
Beckett is drawn into the Resistance, passing information about German troop movements, translating, fleeing with Suzanne when the network is compromised. Splitting logs and cutting firewood with blistered hands, alert for the alarming advance of a diesel engine in the distance, Beckett somehow starts to write: “With a curve and loop and dip and stroke. The words keep happening, and he will not think too much about their coming but just let them come.”
At points, Baker’s narrative feels a bit self-consciously arty: “The quay side, when they reach it, is a lunatic forced into a straitjacket: chaos twitches beneath the surface and wriggles out around the edges.” But she re-creates vividly Beckett’s own terrible struggle with words and his emergence as a writer, as he manages “to try again at this impossible thing that nobody cares whether he does or doesn’t do, and for which no payment is to be anticipated.”