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…
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