- - Monday, July 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE

By Jo Baker

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages

Living in Paris in the 1930s Samuel Beckett was not yet the author of 20th-century classics such as “Waiting for Godot” and “Krapp’s Last Tape.” He was assistant to James Joyce, whose wide learning he shared. But though he had published his novel “Murphy” (1938) as well as poems, short stories, and essays, he remained unknown beyond a narrow literary circle until the 1950s and ‘60s, when the success of his plays and later publications won him the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Like most authors whose work straddles World War II, what he wrote after the war differed from what he wrote before. He explained this as the result of a revelation he had while visiting Dublin in 1945. “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”

His new way struck chords with French and British audiences, and led novelist Jo Baker to wonder what had inspired all his “battered, persecuted characters, scraping by on the margins of a hostile world.” Writing in the author’s note to her novel “A Country Road, A Tree,” she says that illumination came from her tutor at Queen’s University, Belfast, who pointed out that Beckett had spent the war in occupied France. This apercu underpins her novel, which follows Beckett’s life in France from 1939 to 1946.

Beckett heard Chamberlain’s announcement that the U.K. was at war with Germany while staying briefly with his mother in Ireland. He decided to return immediately to France, where he hoped to be of use. “What use do you imagine you’d be?” asks his mother. He has no answer. In fact, his language skills made him a natural for analyzing information and getting it to those who could make use of it. For a while all went relatively well with him and his partner Suzanne, but then his network of the Resistance is betrayed, several friends die, and he and Suzanne flee to Roussillon in the south. Again he worked with the Resistance, storing explosives and helping sabotage the Nazis.

Jo Baker is a competent researcher, and does an intelligent job of tracing Beckett’s life and dramatizing the sheer grind of living conditions in France during the war, when all food was scarce, coffee was made from barley, and cigarettes — a mainstay for Beckett and many others — were rare and shoddy. Beckett gave away some of his meager rations and soothed hunger and thirst by sucking his “sucking stone” — a pebble picked up on a beach. This stratagem later caused horrible dental problems. Even in Roussillon, which was in the Free Zone when Beckett and Suzanne arrived after an arduous trek by train and foot, life was lived in constant fear. Jo Baker’s powerful rendition of the journey and life in Roussillon is at times heart-rending. Always her novel is interesting, especially to those not previously aware of Beckett’s war record.

Yet readers will sometimes be as much at a loss with him as they are with some of his characters because we rarely get into his mind and motivation, largely because the author focuses almost exclusively on the years of World War II and its immediate aftermath, when Beckett helped build a hospital donated to France by the Irish government. This spotlight on the war years leaves the experiences that shaped his first 33 years in the dark, and this makes it harder to understand Beckett’s psychology. Similarly, Suzanne never becomes more than a patient — though sometimes irritated — background figure.

This is not the first novel in which Ms. Baker has recreated life in another time and place. Her 2015 best-seller “Longbourn” is set in the family home of the Bennets of “Pride and Prejudice” fame, but rather than featuring the Bennet daughters, she tells the story of the servants, who have very different responses to such events as Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. One reason why this novel was so successful is that readers had — or could easily acquire — full command of the back story as presented by Jane Austen. In contrast, in “A Country Road, A Tree” much of Beckett’s story is as untethered to a local habitation and a name as the stories of the characters of his own works. This does not prevent the novel being gratifyingly readable, but it lacks the imaginative reach that would shift it definitively beyond the field of biography and into the realm of fiction.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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