A Month in the Country
The dust jacket is unusually discreet. “J.L. Carr,” it says, “lives in England.” Nothing more. None of the scraps of potted biography that readers of novels are supposed to collect: the many children, the wife’s career, the corner of the Cotswolds, funny hobbies, earlier avatars. Yet the effect of this single, and singular, sentence, once we have read A Month in the Country, is not one of discretion. It is more the effect of a cryptic metaphor, saying little, hinting much. England. Is that a place on a map or a place in the past or a place in the mind? How do we get there, or get out? How many of the present inhabitants of the kingdom of that name could be said to “live in England” as J.L. Carr does? How many know there is such a place?
I don’t want to make Carr sound like a mourner of lost English glories, Rupert Brooke for the Eighties. He is far from that. But his book beautifully registers a bewilderment about what is gone and what remains, where the road ran out or was not taken, which is, I think, a large part of what “living in England” has come to mean. The old objects of nostalgia or tub-thumping have become a puzzle, to be approached with wary affection, like childhood friends or over-preserved memories. Will they crumble or will they bite? Graham Swift, one of the most gifted of the younger English writers, emphatically “lives in England” in this sense. He also lives in England.
A Month in the Country was published in…er…Great Britain in 1980. Carr had already written a considerable amount of engaging children’s fiction, and four novels, among them two whose titles alone—A Day in Summer, A Season in Sinji—suggest the preoccupation with time which is central to the newest work. Time is both merciful and ruthless in this book, the only healer of much pain, and the ultimate end of all pain and everything else. “We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever….” And yet, “They’d told me only time would clean me up, and I believed them.” The voice in these quotations is Tom Birkin’s, and the month in the country is his too, recounted by himself. He is a Londoner stranded in the raw-seeming North, at work uncovering a medieval wall painting above the chancel arch of a small Yorkshire church. Time takes all away, but there are things men can put back. As the novel progresses, the painting reemerges, “a showy crowd scene,” as Birkin predicts even before he sees it, a Judgment, with “S Michael weighing souls against Sin, Christ in Majesty refereeing and, down below, the Fire that flameth evermore.” One particular damned soul has an intimate connection with local history—there is suspense and surprise in the nature of the connection, and I won’t reveal it here—and the painter has excelled himself with this figure:
His bright hair streamed like a torch as, like a second Simon Magus, he plunged headlong down the wall. Two demons with delicately furred legs clutched him, one snapping his right wrist whilst his mate split him with shears.
It was the most extraordinary detail of medieval painting that I had ever seen, anticipating the Breughels by a hundred years.
The old painter, Birkin thinks, is “reaching from the dark to show me what he could do, saying to me as clear as any words, ‘If any part of me survives from time’s corruption, let it be this.’ ”
But as this remote past returns, a more recent past recedes, or is covered over by the peace of a different season. For Birkin is a war veteran, he has a twitch and a stammer picked up at Passchaendaele, and his wife has left him. The time of the story is the summer of 1920, but the time of the telling is much later, and the narrative is full of interjections crying out across the decades. “All this happened so long ago…,” “…those far-off days…,” “Ah those days…,” “God, when I think back all those years….” And most chilling, most eloquent in its near-silence about subsequent bruising and bitterness, “In those days I didn’t dislike children….”
What Birkin records then is an interlude, a long moment suspended between the unmanageable horror of the war and the implied desert of the rest of his life. Carr signals this, conventionally but lyrically, like Herrick singing about rosebuds, by the weather. “There was so much time that marvellous summer.” And so much summer. “It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still.” “For me that always will be the summer day of summer days—a cloudless sky, ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars.” It was, Birkin says, “a blessed time.”
But to think of the interlude only as a time is to miss two crucial ingredients in its healing magic, and in the pathos of its passing. It is also a place, an unchanged Yorkshire village at the end of the horse era, with its church and chapel and Sunday School outing, its cricket and eccentrics, its kindness and good sense, its odd bits of violence just offstage. And it is people, the rough but welcoming locals, the stationmaster’s lively daughter, the vicar’s beautiful wife, “the pride of the Uffizi,” Birkin thinks, “walking abroad in, God help us, Oxgodby.” There is happiness for Birkin here, not only a cure but a promise. But it is not a happiness he can grasp and keep. Because he is too damaged to do the grasping and keeping? Because blessings are not blessings if they are too eagerly gathered? “If I’d stayed there,” Birkin wonders, “would I always have been happy?” Of course not, but is that the question?
If he had rescued the vicar’s wife from her starchy husband and her empty future, as at one point she seems to want him to, and he seems ready to do, what exactly would have gone wrong? Is Birkin afraid of happiness itself, or of what he sees as its inevitable withering? A phrase from a story by Graham Swift presents itself, another aspect of “living in England”: “He was distrustful of happiness as some people fear heights or open spaces.” Is this Birkin’s case? We can’t tell. We only know that he does nothing, just leaves his idyll at the end of summer, and that his missed chance is now his best memory, the bright unconcealed painting of his personal past.
Even the past was not pure idyll, though. To remember Yorkshire Birkin has to remember the war that sent him there with its marks and mementos upon him. And his intuited rediscovery of the life of the old painter has its perils too. “The thing that keeps you from screaming…well, that’s extreme. Let’s say, it helps if you can guess how things once were.” But Birkin’s guess at how things once were, as he looks at the signs of an apprentice’s hand having finished the painting now brought to light, is that the master died before the job was done. If his brush strokes everywhere seem firm enough to contradict any thought of lingering illness, what can have happened? Birkin is suddenly sure he knows. The painter fell to his death from his scaffold. What keeps you from screaming permits you to hear another’s ancient scream.
The register of this poised and moving book is very narrow, and Carr’s occasional attempts at broader emotions or larger claims on our attention misfire rather badly. Here is Birkin’s complaint against the war:
Oh you bastards! You awful bloody bastards! You didn’t need to have started it. And you could have stopped it before you did. God? Ha! There is no God.
But within its range the work is virtually perfect, and written with a great deal of liveliness and wit. A train shuffles, a garden sulks, roses rampage, Birkin’s face clicks, the Christ of the painting is “a wintry hard-liner.” Birkin sleeps in the church and when he wakes in the night he sometimes hears
a vixen howling at the edge of some distant wood or the scream of some small creature set upon in the darkness. For the rest, only the sounds of an ancient building, a tremor on the bell-rope coming down and out through the hole in the floor, a stir in the roof timbers, stone still settling after five hundred years.
A small creature set upon, stone still settling, this is the haunted place where J.L. Carr lives, a country of sturdy if troubled peace and almost unnoticed cruelty: England. It is not the England of Kipling and empire, or of any contemporary politician. It has much in common with that of L.P. Hartley or Ford Madox Ford, a realm of puzzlement where history is always either leaping abruptly upon you or forgotten with a completeness that defies belief.
The narrator and chief character of Waterland is a history teacher. “What is a history teacher?” he asks quite late in his account. “He’s someone who teaches mistakes,” an instructor in “bungles, botches, blunders and fiascos.” But by this time Tom Crick is hardly active in this capacity. He is about to retire (“We’re cutting back History,” his headmaster says. “History will merge with General Studies”), and has been behaving strangely of late, telling his pupils long yarns about his childhood in the Fens of Norfolk instead of getting on with the French Revolution; speculating endlessly, helplessly on the entanglements of personal and public history, and on the passion for explanations that makes us look to the past for the answers it cannot give.
Tom’s wife Mary, after many quiet and sensible married years, has begun to believe that God speaks to her privately, and has stolen a baby from outside a supermarket in London. “From God,” she says, sticking to her story. “I got it from God.” The baby is returned to its mother, no damage done, except that Mary Crick now sits in a mental hospital, locked away in amnesia, and Tom, the teacher taught, scours the past for his own mistakes, and for means of mitigating them.
His perspective is a long one, and includes ancestors who drained the Fens and built breweries, a father who kept a lock on a river on that flat and empty land. “To live in the Fens,” Tom says, “is to receive strong doses of reality. The great, flat monotony of reality….” Reality, as Tom discovers, or perhaps has always known, is not as flat as it looks, since it turns out to contain a catastrophic fire, a near-Biblical flood, a grandfather’s incest, a local murder, an idiot brother driven to death by the mysteries of a world that could not leave him alone, and the abortion that led to Mary Crick’s childlessness and her vulnerability to the voice of God. Swift’s theme is the reverse of what a character in Thomas Pynchon’s V. calls “life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”
For Tom Crick there is just not enough accident to go around. “Now why can’t everything happen by accident? No history. No guilt, no blame. Just accidents. Accidents….” But as Tom well knows, the consoling verdict of “Accidental Death” is merely the way history talks when it doesn’t know any better. Behind every accident is a swarm of crisscrossing intentions. Of course the results are often a long way from our wishes, and we find ourselves saying, aghast, that we didn’t want that. “Children,” Tom Crick murmurs, addressing an imaginary audience rather than his classroom, “there are things which happen outside dreams which should only happen in them.”
Even so, we can’t undo what we have done, and although Tom is fully aware of this, a part of his reason for “scurrying further and further into the past,” as he puts it, must be a forlorn fantasy about rewinding the film, dislodging the settled facts. “But that’s what we’re waiting for, isn’t it?” he asks just before he and Mary visit an old witch of the English marshes to see about an abortion. “For Nothing to happen. For something to unhappen.” I have a friend who teaches modern German history, and who confesses to an annual depression as he reaches the events of 1933: unalterably, every year, like a doom which does away with all our faith in freedom, the Nazis come to power again.
History for Swift is the opposite of accident, and it is what fills the apparent emptiness of the Fens. It is synonymous with guilt and blame, or at least with a burden that cannot be ditched or lightened. “And that remark first put about, two and a half thousand years ago, by Heraclitus of Ephesus, that we cannot step twice into the same river, is not to be trusted. Because we are always stepping into the same river.” Much of Swift’s earlier fiction is concerned with flimsy or paradoxical chances of freedom. A boy, learning to swim (the phrase is the title of a story, and of a volume of stories) pleases his father, disappoints his mother, but then kicks away from both of them, “half in panic, half in pride,” toward a life that terrifies him but at least is “all his own.” A man in Swift’s novel Shuttlecock, discovering the squalid, cowardly truth about his father, who was supposed to be an underground war hero, feels an odd elation at the heart of his distress: “I couldn’t help, in the middle of the ruins, this strange feeling of release…. I was free.”
But Waterland offers little hope of freedom from the ambush of the past. The intricate human relations of Swift’s other work, the sense of a world full of people who know only cruel and crooked paths to love, have here become a network of irrevocable deeds, a cage of consequences. Tom Crick seems at first to want to understand the past, but gradually it becomes clear that he chiefly wants to tame it, to tire it out.
I don’t care what you call it—explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things into perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales—it helps to eliminate fear.
This is the function of history for Tom, “History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark,” but of course in this light history is scarcely to be distinguished from legend, or any other story: all devices for placing imaginary paper over yawning and palpable cracks. And this finally is where there may be a flicker of freedom after all, a little flap in the paper. Tom’s father, injured and blasted by the Great War, like Birkin in A Month in the Country, thinks, “There is only reality, there are no stories left.”
In some situations, for some realities, this would be an advance, an escape from illusion. In Waterland, it is a mere compounding of emptiness, and emptiness, as we have seen, is a sort of sheen, a willed pretense that the intricate burden is not heavy. Much later, Tom says, “When the world is about to end there’ll be no more reality, only stories…. Stories will be our only reality.” There is a fiction by Borges (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) that presents this very possibility as a nightmare associated with Hitler’s and Goebbels’s recasting of inconvenient and defeated history, but for Swift it is a precarious consolation, a sign of the mind still ticking. A story is like learning to swim, a means of kicking half-free of a reality that will in any case never entirely let you go. Generalizing wildly, we might say that this too is an aspect of Swift’s Englishness. Americans, north and south, are often afraid that the world will vanish, as if they had been living all this time on the edge of an earth that was flat after all, and only a mixture of faith and magic had prevented their dizzying dive into space. The English, or some of them, would love the world to vanish, but they know it won’t; know that the mire of history sticks even to their bravest, loosest fantasies. The French and Germans often view the world as a logical mistake, or as merely one possible dispensation among many, but that is different again.
Waterland is a formidably intelligent book, rather cumbersome at times, quite often a little too solemn for its own good. The ghosts of Faulkner, Günter Grass, and García Márquez stamp about in it rather heavily. Nonetheless it is the most powerful novel I have read for some time, and is animated by an impressive, angry pity at what human creatures are capable of doing to one another in the name of love and need, and by an attractive willingness to change tracks, to spot the vicious twins even of recommended virtues. Stories are a consolation? They are also an ugly appetite, as when Mary Crick, soon to become “only a story” for her husband, is the object of sensation-hunting curiosity:
And we want our story. Yes, we can’t do without stories. Even when the police have finished and legal proceedings have taken their course, the press-men want their stories…. Read this. Stole a baby. Right outside Safeways. What kind of a woman—? Said God told her. Well, would you credit it? A psychiatrist testifies—yes, yes, but never mind the clever-talk. And her husband a schoolteacher. (Not for long he won’t be.) To think of our children—! He’ll lose his job (she’s lost her mind)…. Hey, is there more? A quarter-page photo of the relieved Mother and the innocent Babe. How I felt when…. Hey, this is good stuff, this is real-life drama. Let’s have more.
The rage and the irony here attack not newspapers or gossip, but all stories that miss or mangle the people caught up in them, forget the bewildered human players. Swift cannot rescue his characters from their circling, crushing stories, but he can show us their frail and various particularities before they go under. This has always been the business, not of fairy tales, or of history, but of novels.