For her new novel author Jo Baker draws on Samuel Beckett’s experience of working with the French Resistance. Yvette Huddleston reports.
He was one of the literary giants of the 20th century and an intensely private man, but a new novel by Jo Baker sheds light on a significant point in the life of Samuel Beckett.
A Country Road, A Tree takes its title from the stark opening stage directions of Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot, famously described by critic Vivian Mercier as ‘a play in which nothing happens, twice’, and presents a fascinating fictional account of the playwright and novelist’s war years working for the Resistance in occupied France.
For her last novel, the highly acclaimed and very successful Longbourn, Baker took inspiration from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, developing the events of the novel from the perspective of the servants. Here she takes the facts of Beckett’s wartime experiences, shaping them into a immensely engaging story of the uncertainty, upheaval, intensity and moral questions that characterise a time of conflict. Beckett makes the admirable decision to resist after the Nazis march in to Paris and is later forced to flee with his lover Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, making their way, on foot, to Roussillon in the South.
“I first encountered Beckett when I was studying for my MA in Irish writing at Queens University in Belfast and I became fascinated by him,” says Baker who will be talking about her book at Ilkley Literature Festival next month.
“I was struck by the fact that we tend to think of him as incredibly austere and difficult as a writer, but there is also this intense humanity and warmth – and humour – in his work, so there was a sense of a paradox.” When one of Baker’s tutors told her that Beckett had been stuck in France during the war, it set something in motion and an idea began to form. Years later, she began to delve deeper, reading biographies and letters – and revisiting Beckett’s own work. “You can see a difference between his early work and his writing after the war,” says Baker. “I wanted to look at that gap. It was as if he was honed by the war as a writer, all the excess was stripped away.” As a young writer Beckett had been hugely influenced by James Joyce – who also appears in Baker’s novel – and it seems that the circumstances of Beckett’s exile may have enabled him to find his own voice. “When he was writing during the war he wasn’t doing it in a coterie, it happened in isolation – and he wouldn’t have had any idea if it could ever be published.” The ‘stripped back’ nature of Joyce’s later writing is subtly echoed by Baker in her own beautifully crafted, pared down prose. And the shadow of Waiting For Godot hovers over the narrative – its sense of alienation feels timeless. It could as easily be a reflection of Beckett’s own wartime situation as of the plight of the thousands of displaced people in the world today. “I was very conscious that the sense of being in transit, between states and waiting at borders resonates,” says Baker. “It feels like some of the moments experienced by Beckett and Suzanne in the book could be happening now.”
A Country Road, A Tree, £14.99, published by Penguin. Jo Baker appears at Ilkley Literature Festival on October 9.