A Country Road, A Tree
Perhaps the strangest thing about this whole mesmerising story is that it's true. If you thought literary writers spent their lives propelled as if on casters from bed to desk to library and back again, never risking more than a trip to the bar, here's something to make you think again.
Samuel Beckett's whole being was about writing, when the book opens he's in pre-war Paris hanging out with friends including James Joyce and Paul Leon.
But when war breaks out, Beckett's friends scatter. Most, including Joyce, leave Paris for the south. Beckett in a quandary of indecision stays then leaves, then returns when he becomes involved in the Résistance.. He is forced to leave again after his unit is betrayed. In the south, he assists the Maquis by storing armaments in the back garden of his house. It is here at Rousillon that he writesWatt, his last major work in English.
Beckett doesn't have to go through any of this, he's a citizen of the neutral Irish Republic and the war, politically anyway, is not his problem. He could, at least in the early days, return home any time he wants. But he stays, partly because of France and partly because there's a woman: Suzanne, 'a French girl also whom I am fond of, dispassionately, and who is very good to me'.
There's a cool detachment to his love for her that is mirrored by her passion, her support of his writing, her frustration and her fear. But their's must have been a fierce love because they stayed together all their lives, returning to Paris to live after the war, and certainly in this book there are times when it would have been, if not better, at least understandable, to let go. When they're starving in Paris, for example, or walking penniless and pursued through France. As well as being a member of the Résistance, he has forged papers and can't be caught.
Jo Baker's (left) first book, Longbourn, was the story of Pride And Prejudice from the servants point of view, in her choice of subjects she is as surprising as Beckett himself. She has a delicate, assured style and a beguiling way of drawing the reader in. The title for this book comes from the stage directions for Beckett's most famous work Waiting For Godot and its spareness reflects not only that of Beckett's prose but also Jo Baker's own pared down writing. And if you can capture Beckett's illusiveness, it's there hovering just out of reach, as if the spirit is floating outside the words.
Right: Samuel Beckett and Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil