I was struck recently by the beauty of two covers for J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (1980; Booker Shortlist). I would like to find a bookstore that places together all NYRB Classics and Penguin Modern Classics for browsing. I’d be a poorer man.
Also, with this particular book, the title stood out to me, perhaps because I don’t like February, and a summer month in the country sounded so pleasant when I picked it up to read. This short novel paid off. It was moving and peaceful and interesting. In it Carr, about whom little is known but who has some whimsical biographical information detailed in the introduction to the NYRB edition, packs layers of nostalgia, making the reader aware of emotions lost to time but evident in what remains of the past.
And even now, a few weeks after finishing the novel, I look back on the short time it took to read with a bit of nostalgia. I felt the peace and youth and mystery.
Tom Birkin, our youthful narrator, has also been craving a month in the country. It hasn’t been too long since he returned from serving in World War I, and in that short time he has already separated himself from a failed marriage. Birkin has taken a job restoring a medieval judgment painting recently discovered in a church in Oxgodby.
The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.
Though a sense of restoration is present in the novel, I was much more fascinated by the way Carr plays with the present, with the past, and with memory. In his introduction, Carr discusses the process of writing the book:
And I found myself looking through another window at a darker landscape inhabited by neither the present nor the past.
This strange feeling of being out of time takes over in the novel, and I enjoyed it so much more for it.
Birkin’s past is only alluded to, which might seem strange as important as the past and memory is in this novel. However, Carr’s decision to provide only fleeting details of his character’s pasts is very effective. Just as Carr wants us to feel a sort of misplaced nostalgia (“. . . knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.”), he also wants us to feel rather than see the not-so-precious moments.
While uncovering the medieval painting, Birkin becomes obsessed with its painter, the one who centuries ago stood exactly where he stands. That individual’s history has been erased from time and memory, yet here remains something that has been hidden from view for centuries, since only a few decades after its completion. The painting offers a few clues into the artist’s life (somehow he got a hold of some very expensive paint) and even his death. Clearly, he was brilliant. And interestingly, he seemed to have painted the judgment with certain people in mind.
It was the most extraordinary detail of medieval painting that I had ever seen, anticipating the Breughels by a hundred years. What, in this single detail, had pushed him this immense stride beyond his time?
Perhaps that detail or others like it are the reason the painting was covered up so soon after it was created. It’s a sad fact of life that though a residue of evidence remains, much of a life, particularly its emotional intensity, is doomed to be forgotten, often even by those who’ve lived it. Thankfully, some of what remains is at least enough to spark hopefully a shadow of memory. This hope applies, of course, to individual human beings, but also to the great world events they engaged in while they lived.
I’ve left out of this review some of the main characters and elements of the novel. But that’s okay; you should discover them for yourself. It is enough to know that Carr treats all of them with respect, recognizing in all of them latent memory. But to slightly make up for my failure to introduce these characters, here’s a small list from the novel itself.
God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather—gone as though they’d never been.