In this, the author’s most recent historical novel, the characters are drawn from a completely different source. The characters who inspired the story Longbourn by Jo Baker are fictional, based on the much admired Pride and Prejudice of Jane Austen. However, in contrast, A Country Road, A Tree, imagines the life and thoughts of the very real, Nobel Prize winning Irish writer, Samuel Beckett. The novel is set in the troubled times of the Second World War when Beckett lived as an ex-pat in Nazi occupied Paris and eventually began working for the French Resistance.
The title A Country Road a Tree is taken from the Beckett’s stage directions for his most famous play, Waiting for Godot I’ve seen the play performed twice; once as an amateur production in Paris in the early 1970’s and the second time at the Beaverbrook Theatre in Fredericton, New Brunswick. If you have seen the play staged as Beckett directed the title of this novel will instantly resonate with you. The setting is stark with the naked horizon as a backdrop and in the middle the only prop, a leafless tree.
I thought the Jo Baker did an excellent job of imagining the city of light dimmed and trampled by the Nazi invasion. I should be more precise and say that it is the spirit of the city that is portrayed as being trampled because the city itself remained largely unharmed. Some writers insist the only reason the French authorities capitulated was because they did not want Paris to be bombed and its monuments destroyed as would eventually happen in London and later in places like Dresden and Berlin where the Allies did the bombing. The Parisian monuments remained unharmed but a heavy price was paid in the suffering of the Parisians. The author builds an atmosphere of desolation and fear, of empty streets and empty cafés and materially impoverished shops with nothing to sell.
Samuel Becket moved from Ireland to Paris post WW I to pursue a writing career and the artist’s life as had generations of artists before him. However, the Bohemian lifestyle did not release his creativity. Somewhere his muse remained locked up and silent. In the interim he attached himself to fellow Irishman, James Joyce, as his amanuensis. Joyce needed the help of an intelligent, sympathetic secretary as he was going blind and could no longer physically write. Beckett was deeply involved in the writing of Joyce’s last work, Finnegan’s Wake. However Jo Baker would have it that Joyce was either miserly or not in good financial shape himself as he did not pay Beckett very well. When it came time for Joyce and family to leave Paris, Beckett’s last pay consisted of one of Joyce’s old winter coats, which in this account was felt by Beckett as a profound humiliation. However, it underlined the depth of Beckett’s poverty in that he wore it out of necessity throughout the war. Fortunately Beckett was blessed with a girlfriend and lover in Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesni who was also an artist, a pianist as well as an activist who likely introduced Beckett to the French Resistance They became fellow escapees to Roussillon in the south of France when Paris became too dangerous for them to live in.
I thought the imaginative work behind this book was very effective. It is a somewhat shorter novel in format but it’s emotional content is intense. The erosion of the human spirit due to slow starvation and thirst is skilfully portrayed. Beckett and Suzanne endure such extremes of thirst that at times they suck on smooth stones to ease their suffering. Jo Baker shows how the Nazis stripped the city and the country of everything of any value using all resources to support the war machine.
At one point in the novel the author describes a scene where Beckett and Susanne are waiting at night at a crossroads in the lonely countryside with only a tree stripped of its leaves for company. They are not waiting for someone called Godot but for a fellow member of the underground who is to show them a way through the back country to the relative safety in the so called Free Zone in the south of France. The novelist imagines this setting to be identical to the one Becket would create when he wrote his famous play and makes the event seem entirely probably.
The novel evokes sadness and loss as well as hope in the creative energy that rises out of the fight against the destructive forces of a foreign invasion. There is enough drama to keep events moving at a pace that effortlessly retains the reader’s interest. I was also impressed by the way the author maintained the feeling of oppression like a single note suspended on a stringed instrument. The tone is grey and sombre but the novel is not glum. It is entirely readable because the author was able to hold on to the view of some distant horizon of hope. Readability is also maintain by the depth of the texture Jo Baker has added to the novel. She has taken the time to vividly describe something such as the sensuousness of washing ones hair after being deprived of that simple pleasure over a long period of time or the soul shattering alarm that riddles a body with fear at the distant sound of artillery fire. The author’s skill is surely proven in that none of the story telling is diminished nor the ending spoiled by the fact that we know in advance how things turn out. France is liberated, reconstruction begins, the broken bits of civilian life are clumsily glued back together and Samuel Beckett discovers his muse is alive and ready to inspire his writing.