Jo Baker, the English novelist who previously wrote a book about the servants in Bennett home of Pride and Prejudice, has written a subsequent novel, A Country Road, A Tree (Knopf, 2016), that follows Samuel Beckett from 1939 to 1945. The title is the worst thing about the book, which comes very close to being a masterpiece for long stretches and is consistently good for its whole length. Baker makes it clear in her afterword that she hero-worships Beckett, but the novel itself is clear-eyed, presenting him as the pain in the ass he undoubtedly was, while also getting inside of the bleak integrity that motivated him even as the novel refuses to make that integrity heroic. It is just who Beckett is: detached, guilty, unable to see much point in anything, but still unable to be passive in the face of evil even as he despairs (at times) about an ineptitude that (at other times) he uses to withdraw from the world and from others. The feat of the novel is to make Beckett make sense—which, considering the extent to which his books and world-view repel me, is an astounding imaginative feat. I told my Joyce class in our last meeting that finishing Ulysses with them suggested to me that it was time to pick up Beckett again after forty years. So the trilogy lies ahead of me. And we’ll see where else I will go from there.
In the meantime, here’s a set of passages from the Baker novel. The first is a conversation between Beckett and Anna Beamish, an Irish writer he meets in the south of France in 1943, at a time when Beckett is hiding out from the Gestapo because his resistance cell has been betrayed, several of its members arrested and, presumably, tortured.
Anna: “But what was this writing that did occur, despite your difficulties/”
He raises a shoulder. “It never came to very much.”
“Get away of that with you.”
He catches her smile. He knows he will be half-cut and stinking of booze by the time he gets back to Suzanne [Beckett’s partner and, later, spouse], and that Suzanne will be cross and say that she isn’t cross, and that this state will go on for days, but it is a long time since he has felt so entirely at his ease, a very long time indeed, and it is worth the price that must be paid for its continuance.
“And no,” he says. “I just can’t see the point of it all.”
“Because of the war?” She tilts her head, considering, as she refills their glasses. “There’s still the oldest and best reason. Even in war, even in any circumstances, really. That still applies.”
“What’s that then.”
“Spite,” she says.
“No, I am serious,” she says, not very seriously. “You need a bit of spite, a bit of venom, to keep you going. Particularly at the start, when no one gives a damn what you’re up to.”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.”
“And then, of course, it’s necessary.”
“If one is not writing, one is not quite oneself, don’t you find?”
And he thinks: the sweaty sleepness nights in Ireland, heart racing, battling for breath. Frank’s [Beckett’s older brother] gentle company the only thing that could calm him. The two things are connected: the writing and the panic. He just had not put them together, until now.
“It’s like snails make slime,” she’s saying. “One will never get along, much less be comfortable, if one doesn’t write.”
He huffs a laugh.
“So.” She shrugs. “There you are. You’re stuck with it.”
He raises his glass. She chinks it.
“To spite,” she says.
They drink. (178-79).
[A little later, when Beckett is back at his desk]:
He stares now at the three words he has written. They are ridiculous. Writing is ridiculous. A sentence, any sentence, is absurd. Just the idea of it: jam one word up against another, should-to-shoulder, jaw-to-jaw; hem them in with punctuation so they can’t move an inch. And then hand that over to someone else to peer at, and expect something to be communicated, something understood. It’s not just pointless. It is ethically suspect.
And yet he needs it. As Miss Beamish said. He has to make the slime that will ease him through the world. (179-180).
[And one last passage]:
In the looped shade cast by the arches, he casts off his boots and socks and dips his feet into the stream. It is ice; it is vivid and it makes him gasp. His feet are all bones, bunions and blisters and ragged yellow nails as the water tumbles round them, and the one toe with the missing joint, as ugly as sin, and as human. He feels sorry for his feet; he knows what they’ve been through.
And so one finds one goes on living. One makes slime and one drags oneself along through the world. Because life is an active decision now. An act of resistance. And there is a certain satisfaction in it. One lives, however hard the struggle, to spite the cunts who want one dead. (198-99).
I don’t want to say I am Beckett. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a life lived in a way more diametrically opposed to what Becket stands for as my life. But I will avow (even as the pretension of it makes me cringe) that I am a writer. I will be banging away at this blog until the day I die. It is necessary to me.
And, yes, partly it is a weird kind of spite—a spite against that death which will eventually get me, but also a spite against time which swallows everything up, and a spite against anonymity and invisibility. I will make my mark—even if it is a fruitless as the dog’s pissing against a tree. No one is out to kill me, but the world’s indifference to the fact of my existence is enough to motivate some kind of push-back, some kind of continual assertion that “I am here, you fuckers.”
The purity of this blog has been a solace to me, pouring out all these thousands of words that nobody reads. I have become like so many writers, producing more than anyone could read, could keep up with. And the lack of readers, the privacy of this barely public forum, is a solace, is liberating. I am not trying to do anything, no longer writing for my professional advancement or reputation, no longer aiming to influence others. I am just pouring out the words—and while it is not quite pleasurable, it is beyond a shadow of a doubt necessary. I need to keep doing this because it is what and who I am.
I approach retirement. I have imagined that I will paint in retirement, put the books and pen away, and pick up a brush. I think I will do that. But I now know that I also will keep writing. I can’t not keep writing. And this blog has given me the perfect format. None of the fuss of sending off to publishers, of pushing a book into print that no one will read any more than this blog is read. Goodbye to all that.
Really? Visions of books to write still dance in my head, as they have ever since I was 18. Will there be another book? Perhaps. The arduous discipline of getting a book into shape–so different from the free flow of these blog posts–seems distasteful to me at the moment, a task I no longer want to impose on myself, taking the lazy way out of writing this blog instead. But that might change.