Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

A Country Road, A Tree: A Novel by Jo Baker --- 289 pages

The author, best know for her critically acclaimed bestseller Longbourn (2013), which retells Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the illuminating viewpoint of the Bennet servants, here turns her attention to the wartime experiences that forged the artistic vision and distinctive voice of Irish author Samuel Beckett.                     

The book describes Beckett’s suffocating relationship with his mother, and his equally uneasy relationship with his mentor James Joyce and Joyce's family. In essence, Beckett, although attractive and personable enough when he chose to be, was solitary by nature, and held even his closest friends at an emotional distance. Butler portrays a man uncertain of his own gifts, ambivalent in his personal relationships, yet certain of his moral choices amid the bleakness and terror of war.  Through Baker's fictional persona of Beckett we are witnesses to life under the Nazi Occupation of France, Beckett's decision to join the Resistance, the betrayal of friends, and his harrowing flight south into the countrside to avoid arrest by the Gestapo. Almost all of the named characters is the book are real people; most notably his companion and eventual wife, Suzanne DeChevaux-Dumesnil. Baker's portrait of Suzanne may be the weakest one in the book; it certainly does not explain a relationship that endured over fifty years between two austere and independent souls.

One reviewer called this an example of strengths and weaknesses of "biofiction." Another considered whether it constitutes a kind of omniscient presumption to claim to know the most intimate thoughts and actions of a man, now dead, who was notable for his dogged reticence. But it does make for a fascinating reading experience. Put Jo Baker on your literary watch list.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was an Irish expatriate who lived most of his adult life in Paris. As a young man he was for a time the personal secretary or literary assistant of James Joyce.  Beckett remained in France throughout the German Occupation and World War II.  He was awarded the Crosse de Guerre in 1945 by the French government for his work with the French Resistance. Beckett was fluent in several languages and wrote in both English and French. He was a novelist, playwright and poet.  His most famous work was his play, Waiting for Godot. The title of Baker's book is taken from the stage direction for the first Act of that play. In 1969 he was awared the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although they both had other relationships, Beckett married his longtime companion, the French musician Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989), in 1961. She had worked tirelessly to promote his career after the war. Suzanne died six months before Beckett. They are buried side by side under a single stone that, according to his wish, "could be any color as long as it is grey," in the famous Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Click HERE to read a review from the UK Guardian.

Click HERE to read a review from the New York Times.

Click HERE to read a review from the South China Morning Post.

Click HERE to read a review from the Irish Times.

Click HERE to read an article about Samuel Beckett and the women in his life, published in the UK Independent in 2014 on the 25th anniversary of his death.

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