Monday 26 September 2016

Life-changing experiences that shaped a literary giant

Fiction: A Country Road, A Tree, Jo Baker, Doubleday, pbk, 400 pages, €17.99

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

Early life: Jo Baker's novel focuses on Beckett as a struggling young man.
Early life: Jo Baker's novel focuses on Beckett as a struggling young man.
A Country Road, A Tree

At first glance, a connection between Jane Austen and Samuel Beckett isn't immediately obvious. However, both writers have provided literary inspiration for author Jo Baker. Her 2013 novel, Longbourn, an original reworking of Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the Bennets' servants, is a critically acclaimed bestseller, while her latest work, A Country Road, A Tree, is inspired by Beckett's experiences in wartime France.

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It's a brave writer who takes on a novel as beloved as Pride and Prejudice, but as the glowing reviews of the engrossing Longbourn proved, Baker's confidence was justified.

It takes even more courage to tackle a writer as lauded as the avant-garde Beckett, but Baker is smart enough to focus her fictionalised account on the struggling young man, rather than the literary giant he would become. Indeed, the protagonist remains unnamed throughout her novel.

When World War Two is declared, he is recuperating in Dublin after a stabbing incident but, suffocated by his difficult relationship with his mother, makes his way back to France, to his lover Suzanne, to his writing and, of course, to James Joyce.

After Paris falls to the Nazis, he and Suzanne see their friends arrested and deported, as the deprivations of war become ever more acute. Haunted by his mother's question, "but what can you do", he joins the Resistance, where he searches for patterns among information.

After their cell is betrayed, he and Suzanne are forced to flee the French capital and undergo a perilous journey before reaching the relative safety of Roussillon in the Zone Libre. There, the couple set up home in a cottage and, inspired, he begins to write the novel that would eventually be published as Watt.

As the war continues, he and Suzanne grow increasingly detached. She is angered by his involvement with the local Maquis, worried that he is putting their lives in jeopardy by his risky behaviour. Although Beckett himself has referred to his Resistance activities as 'boy-scout stuff', there would be lethal consequences to his actions if discovered.

When peace is declared, he returns to Dublin, but yearns for France. An old friend offers work with the Red Cross, and he spends time in Normandy, before eventually returning to Paris, to Suzanne and to his work. Freed from the shackles of Joyce's shadow, his genius is unleashed. Baker's final sentences are beautifully precise and unadorned, and make it clear that the writer we know as Samuel Beckett has been born.

He and Suzanne would stay together and eventually marry in 1961. They are buried together in Paris's Cimetiere du Montparnasse. Readers unfamiliar with their story may be surprised by this. In her sparse prose, Baker wonderfully captures the toll of war, the constant hunger, the pain of feet in ruined boots, the ache of neglected teeth, the sheer relentless drudgery of daily life in war-torn France. Small horrors are vividly portrayed to powerful effect. But the undoubtedly strong connection between Beckett and Suzanne seems gossamer-thin in A Country Road, a Tree, worn down by war and the sacrifices necessary for survival. Their relationship seems reduced, insubstantial.

And while there are several references to future Beckett works in the novel - including a long wait by a tree in a nameless place - attempting to unlock his creative genius may be a conceit too far. At times, it seems as if Baker has become rather overwhelmed by her literary inspiration, not least when she describes a grenade as being "as full of violence as an egg is full of egg".

That is a small quibble in a most enjoyable read. Baker's Beckett is likeable, accessible, even, and A Country Road, A Tree is a stunning tribute to the life-changing experiences that shaped a literary giant.

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