“What’s Coming”: Jo Baker, The Undertow

Billie puts her mug of coffee down too, then goes round to place the vase on the windowsill. The flowers seem almost to glow in the spring light. All these little things, these kindnesses that Billie does for her: it’s an odd reversal, being looked after like this. Madeline catches the scent of ginger and lemon, and the flowers’ sharp musk, and beneath that the warm oiliness of her daughter’s coffee, and then under it all the rank whiff of wool from the rug over her knees, and it makes her stomach churn. She swallows, raises her face to the breeze from the window. She feels a wash of love and gratitude, and after it an undertow of grief. Deep in her flesh, she knows what’s coming. What she’s going to put Billie through.

The Undertow is the kind of book that can sound like—and often is—a soggy cliché: a multigenerational saga, the story of a family across a turbulent century that sees three of its sons go off to war and all of its mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, pass through dramatic changes of morals, mores, and fashions … you know the type! And it is exactly that kind of novel structurally; it’s just that Baker is a good enough writer to use this conventional framework in a fresh and often moving way. In fact, The Undertow may be my favorite Jo Baker novel so far.

The Undertow follows four generations of the Hastings family: William, his son Billy, his son Will, and his daughter Billie. “The lot of you,” Billie says, “like a set of Russian dolls … Chips off the old block, the lot of you.” Then, seeing that she has made her father Will uneasy, she qualifies her observation: “Same block, maybe, different chips.” Will’s discomfort reflects his fraught relationship with Billy, whose harsh moodiness (though Will does not know this) reflects his difficulty accepting what, in his mind, was the price he paid for the life Will would go on to lead: his killing of a young German sniper during the D-Day invasion. It’s an episode told without flamboyance—Baker’s style here, as in the other novels of hers that I’ve read, is concrete and descriptive, not minimalist but powerfully concise:

The day is muffled; there’s a high-pitched hum in Billy’s ears. Nothing happens. The body slips a little further over to one side. Grass, and headstones, and the blistered paint on the railings Nothing happens. The bird starts to sing again … Billy comes up to the foot of the grave and looks the body over. He can’t see where he hit him. He reaches round the kerbed edge of the grave, and crouches down, and reaches out and takes hold of the jaw to turn the face towards him. The skin is particularly smooth. It is still warm. It is a child. His greenish eyes are vague and dead.

Contemplating Will, born (as Billy sees it) imperfect, with Perthes disease—which will pain Will throughout his life—Billy thinks,

The boy will turn out fine, better than fine. Billy insists on it. Anything less than this is unacceptable. This is his second chance. He’s paid for it. That boy’s death in Normandy was the down payment. The drip drip drip of guilt, that’s just the interest.

Billy’s unexpressed shame, rage, and grief drag are a weight that he is never really able to overcome. It’s hard for us to judge Billy too harshly, though, as his own father died at Gallipoli before Billy was even born, leaving his young wife to grieve and Billy ever-conscious of the absence, the emotional abyss, in their lives. We also know about the dreams Billy had and gave up, of a kind of glory that had nothing to do with war. Will in his turn is both suffering and deeply flawed; when his daughter Billie runs away to her beloved grandparents (Billy better able to show her the tenderness he couldn’t extend to Will), it’s easy to understand why she wants to get away but also, as she eventually discovers, to believe that it is possible and necessary to forgive.

I liked the ebb and flow in our sympathies across the novel: Baker creates people who seem genuinely complicated. She’s also clever about how she presents their stories, overlapping them as we move through the generations so that the protagonists of one phase take up new roles in the next, their children claiming centrality and then yielding it in their turn. Across the novel this becomes part of the larger story: the pathos of aging, the inevitable shift and change of the passing years. The boy who learned to ride a bike to make deliveries becomes the young man who wins races, then the soldier who rides into occupied France; then he’s a father and finally a grandfather, his bicycle hung up then given away as his son grows up and then grows old—meanwhile his daughter moves into position. We all take our turns at life, the novel reminds us; only to ourselves are we ever or always the main character.

Baker deftly creates unity across her storylines beyond the family relationships. The postcards William sends back from the front in WWI, for instance, cherished by his wife, are saved through the years and finally examined with care by Billie, remnants of a lost love and a vanished life that tell her that “even in the depths of war” he had found beauty as well as suffering in the world. She’s right, we know, because we were with William in 1915. We were with him when he saw Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St. John the Baptist in Malta, before his ship continued on to Gallipoli—and then we see it again in Malta with Billie when she takes up an artist’s residency on the island, neatly closing the loop. The painting makes both William and Billie reflect on the violence they know or fear in their world, as well as the paradox that great horrors can make great art. I think that’s something Baker is experimenting with too: her novel emphasizes both the literal devastation of war and terrorism and their less tangible but equally lasting legacies. This sense of pain and beauty coexisting is, I think, one facet of the “undertow” of the title. On a more domestic level, the tug downward comes from the ever-present knowledge that death is “what’s coming,” that our turns come and then are over. The epigraph from Ecclesiastes draws these things together: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. All the rivers run to the sea and yet the sea is not full.” Overall, then, it’s a melancholy book, though there are certainly moments of uplift which, by and large, come from the little things in life:

But for now, the blackbird still sings outside the window. Now there is just the kiss, and the taste of coffee, and the clear strong knowledge that this, however brief, is happiness.

Below Stairs: Jo Baker, Longbourn

longbournElizabeth’s departure, once the rain had stopped, caused no particular trouble to anyone below stairs. She just put on her walking shoes and buttoned up her good spencer, threw a cape over it all, and grabbed an umbrella just in case the rain came on again. Such self-sufficiency was to be valued in a person, but seeing her set off down the track, and then climb the stile, Sarah could not help but think that those stockings would be perfectly ruined, and that petticoat would never be the same again, no matter how long she soaked it. You just could not get mud out of pink Persian. Silk was too delicate a cloth to boil.

Anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice will immediately recognize this moment. Jane has come down with a cold thanks to her mother’s insistence that she ride to Netherfield “because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night”—a highly successful strategy, as it turns out. Elizabeth, “feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative.” And so she sets out on foot,

crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.

The residents of Netherfield are shocked at her impropriety, but though they notice that her petticoat is “six inches deep in mud,” not one of them gives a moment’s thought to the extra work Elizabeth’s “country-town indifference to decorum” creates for the household staff. Neither, as far as we know, do Jane and Elizabeth: in this privileged indifference to the labor that supports their lifestyle, if in nothing else, they are very much at one with their hosts.

longbourn2Jo Baker’s Longbourn would be a pretty tedious novel if all it did was highlight or criticize these aspects of Austen’s “light, bright, and sparkling” original, and (to me at least) it would also be a boring one if all it did was tell the same story as Pride and Prejudice from a different point of view. I had avoided reading Longbourn up to now because I was so sure it would fall into at least one of these traps, or just be bad by comparison, as so many novels “inspired” by great novels are. (Exhibit A, the worst.) I have also been tired of the endless appetite for all things Austen for a long time: so many of the results seem either too fannish or just plain parasitic. Finally, I am not by personal taste a Janeite (I like only two of her novels, though I am capable, in my better moods, of appreciating what’s excellent about a couple of the others). It just seemed so unlikely that I’d enjoy Longbourn!

And yet enjoy it I did, quite a lot, which naturally has got me thinking about why—about what Baker does that worked for me where other books in the same vein have failed. I overcame my prejudices enough to try it in the first place because I really liked A Country Road, A Tree: the writer of that smart, sensitive novel about one great writer probably (I reasoned) would not be cheap or shallow in her novel inspired by another. But A Country Road, A Tree is a biographical novel, a different subcategory of literary homage: it undertakes to investigate the writing process, not to rewrite the resultsan approach which risks pitting the new author against the old, or, worse, setting the new author above the old. I think Longbourn succeeds because it sits beside the original: Baker is rounding out the story Austen tells, adding to it in ways that inevitably complicate how we think about it, but she is also clearly writing her own novel, and it stands up well on those terms. In fact, at times I wondered if (marketing advantage aside) Baker really needed the Austen hook: couldn’t Longbourn just have been a historical novel about servants in any elegant Regency household? 

pride-and-prejudice-penguinI’m undecided about that (and I’d be curious to know what other people think). Certainly some of Longbourn‘s appeal comes from its engagement with its excessively well-known inspiration. It was fun to know exactly what was going on upstairs even when Baker’s characters don’twhen Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth at Hunsford, for example. Sarah, who has accompanied Lizzie on the trip to see Charlotte, now Mrs. Collins, is busy with her own thoughts, especially about her relationship with James Smith, when she hears “a door shut within the house”:

There were quick footfalls coming down the hall. She got up off the step and stood aside just in time, or he would have walked straight through her; the front door was whisked wide, and Mr. Darcy strode past her shadow, and marched down the path. He left the gate swinging … Back in the house, she crept down the hall and cocked an ear outside the parlour door. She could hear the quiet sounds of Elizabeth crying.

I guess we do need to know Pride and Prejudice to appreciate this moment fully, but that doesn’t mean Longbourn needed to be attached to the other novel in this way to fulfill its own (other) aims.

The connection is more significant in the other direction, I think: having read Longbourn, you are likely to be more aware of the elements that are absent from Pride and Prejudice the next time you read Austen’s novel. I say “absent” rather than “missing from” because I think the former allows us to acknowledge the limited scope of Pride and Prejudice without insisting on that as a fault in it: it is what it is, and Longbourn is something else, is about something elsenot the same themes of manners and morals, not the same political themes or philosophies, as Pride and Prejudice, but other social and political themes, including class (which of course Austen’s novel is also about), race, and empire, topics which are relevant to the lives of Austen’s characters (and especially to their wealth) in ways the original novel does not explicitly acknowledge. Of course the result is some (mostly implicit) critique, especially around the source of the Bingleys’ wealth, which Austen tells us was “acquired by trade” but which Baker attributes more specifically to sugar. “I would love to be in sugar,” exclaims the little maid Polly.

“You’d go sailing out”—James traced a triangle in the air with a fork—”loaded to the gunwales with English guns and ironware. You’d follow the trade-winds south to Africa … In African, you can trade all that, and guns, for people; you load them up in your hold, and you ship them off to the West indies, and trade them there for sugar, and then you ship the sugar back home to England. The triangular Trade, they call it.

“I didn’t know they paid for sugar that way,” says Polly uncomfortably, “with people.” Another  pointed moment comes near the end, when Sarah tells Elizabeth (whom she is now serving at Pemberley) that she is leaving. “But where will you go, Sarah?” Elizabeth asks; “What can a woman do, all on her own, and unsupported?” “Work,” Sarah replies. “I can always work.” That, of course, is an alternative Elizabeth herself never contemplates when faced with the dire prospect of marrying Mr. Collins or risking poverty.

longbourn3But Baker isn’t rewriting Pride and Prejudice, which carries on cheerfully, and more or less exactly as Austen wrote it, even as Baker’s own drama plays out. She adds some pieces to it: the most important one is Mr. Bennet’s early dalliance which resulted in the living son he and Mrs. Bennet never have (thus the whole rest of Austen’s plot!). I wasn’t convinced that this storyline really fit Mr. Bennet, but I liked the way the presence of this illegitimate heir added to Austen’s critique of the laws of inheritance: it highlights a different kind of injustice from the one the Bennet sisters face. (Some of the plot points around this son struck me as a bit too pat, but the section about his wartime experiences is really well done—gripping, even harrowing, in a most un-Austen-like way.) I particularly liked the way Baker used Wickham: everything about his role in her story seemed entirely in keeping with the man we know from Austen’s. Mostly, though, Austen’s characters are peripheral in Baker’s novel, which I thought was really smart. It gives Baker room to develop her own interesting characters, to set her own vivid scenesin short, to write her own good novel, without relying on Austen to win the game for her.

“Decency Among the Ruins”: Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree

baker1My near total first-hand ignorance of Samuel Beckett’s work would probably be a real advantage to me in David Lodge’s famous game ‘Humiliation.’ Even my second-hand knowledge is pretty limited: I have a casual idea of what Waiting for Godot is like and about, and that’s it. As with all novels steeped in another author’s lives and ideas, Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is probably better appreciated by someone else, then, someone who can do more than stumble over a reference to an ‘endgame’ and think “hey, that’s probably an allusion!” or who can read Baker’s moving description  of Beckett’s epiphany about his own writing and really understand what it meant in practice:

There is nothing grand about it; no waves, no wind, no briny spray. The world is not and never was in sympathy with him, nor with anybody else. But this is the moment when everything changes, the moment when the wide chaotic chatter and stink of it, all that wild Shem-beloved hubbub, falls away, and his eyes are trained on darkness and his ears on silence. On that stark figure, framed there on the threshold, unknowable, and his.

By this point in Baker’s novel, though, I did at least know enough about Beckett (or, about her version of Beckett) to recognize the importance of this moment as a break away from the brooding and now posthumous influence of James Joyce (“Shem”), whom Beckett assisted and idolized. “Oh you poor thing,” his friend Anna Beamish exclaims when he tells her that he helped Joyce with Finnegans Wake; “Being friends with a genius.”

Throughout A Country Road, A Tree Beckett is trying—wracked with self-doubt and haunted by the oddity of writing at all in the midst of calamity and danger—to figure out how to write his way:

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, shoulder-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.

When it’s possible, writing is an escape for him, a source of clarity and comfort, but when the spell breaks, the results bring him little satisfaction:

even to have written this little is an excess, it is an overflowing, an excretion. Too many words. There are just too many words. Nobody wants them, nobody needs them. And still they keep on, keep on, keep on coming.

This revulsion against excess is what underlies that later moment of revelation, which Baker explains further in her Author’s Note:

[The wartime years] marked the start of his paring away at language: a stripping-back of Joycean wordplay and polyphonic extravagance, towards bare bones, and silence.

Baker’s own prose in this novel strikes me as cautiously influenced by that model of “paring away,” though in that respect A Country Road, A Tree isn’t really different from a lot of conspicuously well-crafted recent novels. It is not quite as spare as Normal People, and Baker is particularly good at scene setting with concrete details and vivid imagery: the novel definitely invites the over-used term “atmospheric.” But there is little exposition; the action and dialogue do most of the work.

baker3The specific scenes that need setting are those of Beckett’s years in occupied France, during which he played a part (a small part, he insisted) in the French Resistance. I didn’t know that this was part of Beckett’s story. Anyone’s experience of this kind would make a compelling novel (and of course there have been  many other books of one kind or another about this period), and Baker does a really good job conveying the anxiety of it all: it’s an extremely tense narrative, especially from the first moment Beckett joins in with the resistance efforts. The vicarious pressure of living in constant fear of exposure or betrayal, and then with the immediate hazards of escape and living in hiding, was almost too much to add to my own currently high levels of anxiety as the third COVID wave hits Halifax and once again everyday activities feel fraught with risk. In fact, a lot about A Country Road, A Tree felt timely, as something Baker’s Beckett is particularly attuned to is the disorientation induced by the ways crisis defamiliarizes even our most routine activities and intimate spaces. 

baker2Following Beckett’s own lead, Baker never glamorizes Beckett’s resistance work; she doesn’t even treat it as particularly heroic. It’s true that, in retrospect at least, he came through it all pretty well, better than many of his collaborators in these efforts not to mention many, many other people. In the end what’s interesting and important about this particular story about that time and that work is what it meant to Beckett as a writer: that’s really what A Country Road, A Tree is about. Does that trivialize the war, the resistance, the deaths and suffering? I don’t think so. Beckett did more than many of us would to push back against evil, but that wasn’t his chosen work, and it seems right to pay attention to what he made of that experience, or what that experience meant to him, when its imperatives lifted and he was once again able to create unimpeded–or, at any rate, unimpeded by quite the same array of external crises. We shouldn’t let war (or COVID) convince us that things not obviously or directly related to them are not important, that the right response is to marginalize or pare away things we genuinely value. Apparently Churchill’s line about preserving the arts (“then what are we fighting for?”) is apocryphal, something he never said, but the sentiment it expresses is surely true, or at least a lot of us agree with it. To think that Beckett’s writing is less important than his efforts against the Nazis is, in a way, to lose the war. (I have questions like this about what really matters during a crisis in mind because it’s part of what I decided to write about in the essay I’ve been working on about The Balkan Trilogy—out soon, I hope.) 529px-Samuel_Beckett,_Pic,_1_(cropped)And it is probably in this case best, anyway, not to consider these things as in opposition. Writers’ experiences become their art, and that’s what Baker is primarily exploring: how being alone and afraid and constantly confronted with irrationality and violence and threats both literal and existential brought Beckett to an understanding of what he wanted to write and how.

I think one reason I hadn’t pursued any further information about or experience of Beckett was that what I (vaguely) thought I knew about Waiting for Godot made me think I’d find his work both confusing and kind of depressing. Baker’s novel showed me something more appealing—not easy answers about “the meaning of life” or uplifting stories of courage under fire, but reasons for the kind of quiet optimism that depends on just doing the best we can:

Things are getting better. Things are becoming sound. There’s asphalt on the roads and on the paths. There’s glass, or something like glass, in all the windows. There’s lino on the labour-room floor—since there is breeding still, even now, even in this devastation. There are curtains round the beds, and clean sheets and warm blankets neatly tucked in. . . There is tea and there are biscuits and there is bread-and-jam when it is required, and it is often required. There’s kindness here. There’s decency among the ruins. It is something to behold.