Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

By posted at 11:00 am on December 4, 2016 0

First, there was the endless presidential campaign, the daily, ugly slog through the mud of “Hillary lied!” and “Grab them by the pussy,” the compulsive visits to 538.com, the circular arguments on Facebook and Twitter, the depressing reality that this — this sour, angry, nationally televised sandbox tantrum — was the method by which a country that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was going to pick its next president.

Then there was the gut punch of election night itself, the lung-crushing spectacle of watching Hillary Clinton’s blue Upper-Midwestern firewall crumble in a wave of white working class fear. Late that night, after the networks had called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump and it was finally, irrevocably over, I turned to my mother, who was visiting from out of town, and said, “I don’t know my own country anymore.”

More than anything Trump has said or done in the days since, that moment stays with me. I may be the walking embodiment of the coastal urban elite, but my parents both grew up in a small Southern mill town, where I spent long stretches of my childhood. I’ve traveled America from end to end, visiting every state but Maine and Alaska, and I spent three formative years living in Richmond, Va., where statues of Confederate generals line the streets to this day. I thought I knew America, warts and all. I thought I understood its essential decency. On November 8, I learned that I did not. It’s a shock from which I may never fully recover.

coverAll this has made reading nearly impossible. On November 7, I was reading, of all things, Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy. On November 9, I set it aside. I just could not read another goddamn word about Jack Kennedy facing down Mississippi’s segregationist governor Ross Barnett, or Bobby Kennedy shaking off the agony of his brother’s murder to run first for the Senate and then for the presidency as a liberal firebrand. On November 7, all that was taking place in a country I knew and loved. On November 9, the book might as well have been set on Mars for all I could make sense of it.

coverAfter several days of staring dumbstruck at the news and my Facebook feed, I picked up Jo Baker’s A Country Road, a Tree, a fictionalized treatment of Samuel Beckett’s life in France during World War II. A book club I belong to was reading it, and my plan, honestly, was to fake it. I had read Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography, so I knew the outlines of the story and could talk knowledgeably about the central conceit of Baker’s novel, which is that Beckett’s desperate escape from the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Paris is the unstated plotline of his famously plotless play Waiting for Godot. I could barely read the newspaper, much less a whole novel, but in this case I figured I wouldn’t have to.

Then I read the book’s opening line: “The tree stirred and the sound of the needles was shh, shh, shh.” I was sitting on the living room sofa when I read this, surrounded by student papers, my laptop open to The New York Times website, which still, two days after election night, read “TRUMP TRIUMPHS” in all caps. All that fell away, and I was halfway up a tree in Ireland hearing the branches sway in the breeze. I didn’t know precisely where that tree was, or who was sitting in it with me, but I didn’t care. I was a grown man in despair invited, for an instant, to inhabit the mind of a boy hiding in a tree, listening, alert to the music of the world. “The boy swung a knee over the branch,” I read, “heaved himself up, and shifted round so that his legs dangled. The scent of the larch cleared his head, so that everything seemed sharp and clear as glass.”

Do you know what a larch tree smells like? I don’t either, not really. But I smelled it then. For nearly a year, I had been stuffing my head with useless crap — turnout predictions of Hispanic voters in Florida, Bernie Sanders’s legislative record in Congress, federal law as it relates to the handling of classified government materials. Now I settled back into the sofa, smelling larch needles, and my head cleared just a little, just enough to keep on reading.

All the time I read A Country Road, a Tree, I shifted between two competing states of being, a pre-Trump reader and a post-Trump one. The pre-Trump reader in me had read enough Beckett to know that he would almost certainly regard Baker’s novel as so much sentimental bollocks. One of the more charming quirks of Beckett’s extraordinarily quirky personality was that he dismissed his work in the Paris Resistance, for which he later was awarded the Croix de Guerre, as mere “Boy Scout stuff.”

coverMore importantly, by stripping plot from his postwar plays like Waiting for Godot and novels Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett called into question the very notion of the dramatic hero. In a conventional narrative, plot is driven by the hero’s desire to achieve some essential objective. The more consuming this desire is, the more absorbing the story. You can argue, as some do, that Vladimir and Estragon, the bickering central figures of Waiting for Godot, are heroic in their desire to wait for the elusive Godot, that for them inaction is a kind of heroic action, but as decades of baffled theatergoers can tell you, that’s hardly the kind of action most audiences expect.

The Samuel Beckett of A Country Tree, a Road is, by contrast, every inch a traditional dramatic hero. The book begins with Beckett in Ireland listening to the radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in September 1939. He could easily wait out the war in safety at home, but he is in love with a Parisian woman, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, and just as importantly, he is creatively stymied and believes he can write only in Paris. When Beckett tells his mother that he plans to return to France, she asks witheringly: “And what possible use do you imagine you would be?”

This line functions like a witch’s curse that gives the hero his purpose: For the rest of the novel, Beckett struggles to be of use. Disgusted by his inaction as his friends are rounded up by the Germans, he joins the Resistance and, like magic, the very traits that made him useless — his introverted personality, his stubbornness, his savant-like gift for arranging random words and numbers into patterns — make him an ideal Nazi saboteur. Over and over, in crisis after crisis, others panic or give in to hunger and fear while Beckett calmly saves the day with a resourceful decision or a well-timed joke.

Once, on the run from the Gestapo, he and Suzanne get lost in a dark alleyway, and Beckett suggests they flip a coin to decide which direction to go. “What good would that do?” Suzanne asks.

He shrugs, takes the cigarette off her. “It’d be something. It’d be a start.”

“Hardly.”

“So, we’ll stay here, then.” He takes a drag and settles down against the wall.

“Shut up,” she says. “Idiot. You break my feet, you know?”

He shuffles his shoulders, chilly brick against his back. “You know, I like this alleyway. I think we could be happy here.”

“Oh, I’ve had enough. Come on!

Surely, Beckett would hate all this. Surely, he would see that, in translating his life into fiction, Baker has turned him into an Ernest Hemingway war hero: laconic, mordantly funny, graceful under pressure. And just as surely, that would drive up him the wall. One of the hallmarks of the postwar European avant garde was an almost reflexive resistance to the bourgeois morality that drives most conventional narrative. In occupied Paris, in the concentration camps, in besieged Leningrad, it was who you were — Jew, Gypsy, enemy alien — not what was in your heart that saved your life or ended it. And when it wasn’t that, more often than not, it came down to dumb luck.

Had I read A Country Road, a Tree before the election, I would have said it was an enjoyable read, gorgeously written and historically fascinating, but also at a certain level a load of sentimental bollocks. But the election of Donald Trump on a wave of white aggrievement changed the way I read A Country Road, a Tree, as I suspect it will change the way I read and understand everything in the years to come. For one thing, I have felt so damn useless since Election Day, so gutless and impotent, and so I was primed for a good, old-fashioned bollocksy tale of a self-involved artist who, faced with the great evil of his time, finds within himself hidden reservoirs of courage and moral purpose.

More than that, though, what I found restorative in Baker’s novel, so deeply necessary, was its beauty. Ours is an ugly, angry age, and this ugliness is reflected in our politics. Once, America turned out leaders who inspired the world, but can you think of a single memorable line from either side in the 2016 presidential campaign that wasn’t an insult or a threat? We have gone from a public oratory that gave the world, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “I have a dream,” to one that has given the world, “I will build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it.”

A Country Road, a Tree resists all this, not by arguing against it, but simply by being beautiful. Baker writes beautifully, but she also cares about beauty, sees the intrinsic value in it. It’s there in that first line about the boy in the tree listening to the swaying larch branches saying “shh, shh, shh,” and it’s there 279 pages later in book’s quietly moving final scene in which a war-weary Beckett returns to his Paris apartment and settles down to write:

In silence and in solitude, he folds open his new notebook. He flattens out the page. He dips his pen into the ink, and fills it, and wipes the nib. The pen traces its way across the paper. Ink blues the page. Words form. This is where it begins.

There is no way to know what the next four years will bring, but whatever happens, it is safe to say it’s not going to be pretty. I, for one, plan to remain engaged politically, to write letters, make phone calls, sign petitions, and commit acts of civil disobedience, if none of those other things gets results. I continue to believe, Electoral College be damned, the America I know and love is still out there, strong as ever.

But in the meantime, amid all that struggle and rancor, we can’t forget to make a place for beauty. We’re going to need it, now more than ever.

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