Book Review: A Country Road, a Tree, by Jo Baker

Country road treeSamuel Beckett is one of my literary touchstones. When I first read his work in my late teens and early twenties, those slim books showed me what literature could be. I had long been an avid reader, but the books I read before that were different, as different as could be from what Beckett wrote. I devoured his works, buying the Grove Press and John Calder editions at the St. Mark’s Bookshop in the Lower East Side of New York. Beckett’s work even prompted me to dust off my high-school French and take courses in the language at the French Institute in New York, and that eventually led me to move to France some thirty-two years ago.

I’ve since read all of Beckett’s work, in both English and French. (He wrote many of his works in French, and translated most of them into English himself.) I’ve read him fairly irregularly in the past couple of decades, but recently dipped back into some of his work, and saw a production of End Game in Manchester.

So this novel, A Country Road, a Tree, piqued my interest. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I’m a sucker for fiction about writers I admire. It covers the period just before and during World War 2, where Beckett served in the Resistance, and here he later worked at a hospital, after the war, in Saint-Lô. It’s a fascinating novel, showing that the author knows a great deal about Beckett’s life, but also his work. As I read it, I noticed a number of “easter eggs,” phrases, sentences, even scenes that were taken from his work. There is notably one scene where Beckett and his partner Suzanne are waiting for someone by a tree on a country road, and he doesn’t show up. (“A country road. A tree. Night.” These are the stage directions that begin Waiting for Godot, describing its setting.)

Jo Baker paints a wonderful portrait of Beckett, and of those around him, notably James Joyce, with whom Beckett was very close before the war. (Joyce died in Switzerland in 1939.) Her language is subtle yet multifarious. But the portrait seems to lack color, as if it’s all in shades of gray. This isn’t a criticism, but the novel does have a tone that recalls, in many ways, Beckett’s fiction.

While Beckett’s character is richly delineated, I felt that many of the others were mere sketches. Suzanne, Beckett’s partner, and later his wife, comes across as his foil, and not much more. Many of the other characters he encounters briefly are also sketched out with just a few strokes, and seem more like stage props than real people. But the settings the author describes are almost painfully real. Baker’s descriptions of Paris reminded me of the years I lived in that city, and the descriptions of the countryside captured, albeit simplistically, that part of France.

This is a novel that presents a thesis, as Baker points out in an Author’s Note at the end of the book: that the war changed Beckett, and altered his fiction. It’s true that his pre-war writings – More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy, and Watt, along with some other works that weren’t published until much later – were clearly influenced by James Joyce, and the post war writings – notably the theater – has its own tone, as if Beckett did find his voice. Whether or not the war led to this is a moot question; his writing changed, in part because he switched to writing in French, which, he would say, allowed him to write “without style.” I would argue that the change in language had more of an effect on Beckett’s style, but the war may have instilled in him the pessimism that became an integral part of his writing.

One thing that bothered me in this novel was Baker’s use of certain French expressions translated word for word into English. We don’t say “brothel of sh*t,” “name of god,” “my flea,” and, especially, “the cow,” as the French do. (The latter is an exclamation which can loosely be translated as “WTF,” or “Wow!”) I’m not sure why she did this; if you’re not a French speaker, you probably wonder what these people are saying at times.

Nevertheless, this is a fine novel, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t expect it will be for everyone, but for those familiar with Beckett, or interested in France during wartime, it’s an accomplished work, and one written with great care and detail. Many of Baker’s sentences shimmer, standing out brightly against the gray background of a story that is perhaps just a bit too restrained.

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