Imagining Beckett’s War Years: A Country Road, A Tree

Justine Jordan (The Guardian) reviews a fictional recreation of Samuel Beckett’s life

Amid all the Jane Austen reboots and ripoffs, Jo Baker’s 2013 debut Longbourn, which developed the events of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective, seemed restrained yet revelatory. Fresh, fascinating and beautifully achieved, it was that rare beast: a critical success with wide commercial appeal. What would one expect from the follow-up? Probably not a re-creation of Samuel Beckett’s war years, from his desperation to leave the Ireland that stifled him, through his time in occupied Paris working for the resistance and escape to the south after being betrayed to the Nazis, to his postwar job helping set up a French hospital. And always, through danger, penury and privation, the compulsion to continue with writing that doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, that he is driven to produce, as a writer friend puts it, like snails make slime.


The book echoes Longbourn, though, in the way it takes a behind-the-scenes look at literature, animating the experiences that fed into Beckett’s later work. Baker’s close attention to physical experience, the deafening demands of the body during hard labour or hunger, is familiar from Longbourn, too, and pertinent to Beckett’s aesthetic as it was to her story of Georgian England’s less fortunate class. “The body’s barest needs make for a heavy load,” we are told, as, during the darkest days of the war, Beckett and his lover Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil struggle on foot towards what they hope will be the safe haven of Roussillon. As they throw themselves on the mercy of strangers, “human bodies share the almost nothing that they have, and go on living”.

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It is a daring project, to enter the mind of a man known for his withdrawal and silences, but Baker succeeds triumphantly in prose that is both intimate and austere, with an unobtrusive Beckettian cadence. At the heart of the novel is Beckett’s relationship with Suzanne, a lifelong companion and later his wife, yet of whom he wrote in a 1939 letter to a friend: “There is a French girl also whom I am fond of, dispassionately, and who is very good to me. The hand will not be overbid.” His need for solitude and distance grinds against her combination of support and dismay – peeking into his notebooks, black with crossings-out, it occurs to her that “all that has been achieved here is the consumption of paper, ink and time”. By war’s end, there is indeed a gulf between them, as well as exhausted familiarity. There is an unbearably poignant moment as they run, single file, from the Germans: “His arm is stretched back to her; she’s tumbling forward to hold on to him. It’s uncomfortable, constraining, it might be better to let go. They don’t let go.” [Read More]

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