“A Country Road, A Tree: A Novel”
By Jo Baker
Knopf (304 pages, $26.95)
When war came to Europe in 1939, Samuel Beckett was a published but largely unknown and unread Irish writer working in the long shadow of James Joyce, for whom he’d served as a literary secretary in Paris while the great man was writing “Finnegans Wake.”
By war’s end six years later, Beckett was well on his way to becoming the markedly different writer who would shortly unveil “Waiting for Godot” and who is now justly remembered as one of the last century’s literary giants.
“A Country Road, A Tree” -- Jo Baker’s moving, beautifully written and riveting historical novel -- explores how Beckett moved from A to B while surviving World War II in various parts of France.
Beckett did much of his moving during those years because he had no choice.
In the fall of 1939, Beckett didn’t have papers authorizing his ongoing stay in France. By the time he did, he was active in the French Resistance, triggering a hasty flight south after his underground cell was betrayed. While hiding in southern France, he was aiding the fighters preparing to rise up after the Allies landed.
Baker makes clear how often Beckett might have chosen differently: staying in Ireland rather than returning from a visit there in September 1939; emigrating to America like other artists were doing; focusing on his writing and blocking out all going on beyond the walls of his tiny apartment.
“You don’t have to look,” Estragon says to Vladimir in “Waiting for Godot.” “You can’t help looking,” Vladimir replies. “Try as one may.” (TNS)