J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

I was struck recently by the beauty of two covers for J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (1980. 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.

a-month-in-the-country

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.

This cover has been updated to the new Penguin Modern Classic style, but the picture is the same.

This cover has been updated to the new Penguin Modern Classic style, but the picture is the same.

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.

20 thoughts on “J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

  1. Andy says:

    This is one that has been on my radar for a while. And you have just pushed it up a notch. I read Pollocks Crossing in December. Like Month in the Country, this is also a short book that lives in the memory. Based on an English Teacher’s assignment to South Dakota in 1930, it is has resonances of the current economic climate with the Depression and failing banks. It is based on real experience as J.L Carr also spent a year as an exchange teacher in South Dakota. It is an enjoyable book laced with humour in the bleak conditions.
    A Month in the Country is one of the many Booker nominations to have been adapted for the big screen. Starring Colin Firth, it is one I am keeping my eye out for it.
    And J.L Carr also wrote a book called How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup. That one certainly intrigues me … if Arsenal get past Burnley today, maybe Steeple Sinderby Wanderers lie in wait.

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks Andy. I knew (and know) next to nothing of J.L. Carr, but I am intrigued with his fiction, which seems just out of touch with mainstream literary fiction. I like the prospects!

    As for the film adaptation, after reading the book I looked to see where it was available and have found not one accessible copy here in the U.S. Anyone know whether this is still available in some form or another?

  3. Andy says:

    I think it has now been deleted although it was released on dvd and video. The prices on Amazon and ebay are extortionate, so I decided to wait for a tv showing.
    (And unfortunately it’s Chelsea rather than Steeple Sinderby Wanderers. C’est la vie)

  4. Stewart says:

    Loved this when I read it a few years back and I’m toying with updating my PMC edition (as per your photo) to the latest instance. Sadly, as with most books, the time plays tricks on the memory and only snippets remain, but lovely snippets, mostly about the church.

    It’s probably the shortest book ever to make the Booker shortlist, sort of laughing off all those is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-novel concerns about McEwan’s On Chesil Beach two years back.

    On a separate note, how on earth do I go about getting my gravatar sorted here?

  5. Trevor says:

    Sorry about the Steeple Sinderby Wanderers’, Andy. I only wish I knew more about all of that over there.

    Stewart, was A Month in the Country shorter than William Trevor’s “Reading Turgenev”? I have seen Two Lives in bookstores, but never checked the length of the portion shortlisted for the Booker. And has another selection from a larger book been shortlisted (or longlisted, for that matter) before or since?

    And on that separate note, I’m not sure what’s going on with your gravatar, Stewart. I’m still powered by wordpress, and Kevin’s and John’s gravatars seem to be working fine. I’ll go comment on your site to see if mine transfers over or not. Curious.

  6. Trevor says:

    I’ll go comment on your site to see if mine transfers over or not. Curious.

    I guess that wouldn’t help much since you don’t show gravatars with your comments. I promise, however, that I have not singled out your gravatar for blocking.

  7. Andy says:

    In the Penguin paperback of Two Lives, Reading Turgenev comes in at 222 pages and My House in Umbria takes another 150 pages. If you have not read Reading Turgenev then I would really recommend it. I always remember it as the book that brought a tear to my eye (which was quickly wiped away with a glance around to make sure nobody else had noticed!).

  8. Trevor says:

    I have been intrigued by William Trevor, and not just because of his name. However, a recent post on John Self’s Asylum made me a bit wary. I’m definitely going to give him a go, though. I have read one of his short stories before, but I can’t remember it at all now. I remember thinking something like this: I’ll have to read that one again because I didn’t get anything out of it and he’s a really good author. I never did read it again, though, to see what I’d missed (if I missed anything, which I’m sure I did).

  9. Stewart says:

    Stewart, was A Month in the Country shorter than William Trevor’s “Reading Turgenev”?

    If Reading Turgenev weighs in at 222 pages, as Andy says (and this hardcover edition, with 192 pages, also suggests thereabouts) then A Month In The Country is much shorter. My Penguin Modern Classics edition only has 85 pages.

  10. Isabel says:

    The summery words can affect your state of mind and make you feel better about the gloomy weather.

    I have the opposite problem. In New Orleans, the summers are oppresive, so I look for books set in cold places, so I can forget the heat!

    February is one of my favorites months, because I can go outside and not fry to death.

  11. Trevor says:

    And it certainly has been gloomy here, Isabel. Last week we had a giant snow storm. The temperature rose about ten degrees per day until it was nice and pleasant at the end of the week, but it didn’t quite stick! Soon . . . I hope. I’m sorry that means your New Orleans heat is on its way!

    By the way, a story that always makes me feel cold, no matter the time of year, is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.”

  12. Current temperature in Calgary is -25C which means it could get to -30C tonight (that doesn’t count the wind chill factor and I’m not going out to develop an opinion). I share Trevor’s feelings, but even he gets a six to eight week start on us so tonight I’m having difficulty developing much sympathy.

    But just to give your tastes a tease, Isabel, I finished today a proof copy of a marvelous first novel called Porcupines and China Dolls set in the Northwest Territories. Not due for release until May (and I don’t even know if it has a U.S. publisher) but you can look forward to a review in a couple of months. Given your post, I think it will meet your criteria for summer reading in New Orleans.

  13. John Self says:

    I think A Month in the Country is a small (very small, as Stewart has pointed out) masterpiece, and from my limited experience, Carr’s best book. I’m afraid, Andy, that I found The Battle of Pollocks Crossing unreadable (and unfinishable), though like A Month in the Country it was shortlisted for the Booker. In mildly arbitrary support for my view, it’s notable that neither Penguin nor NYRB – nor anyone else – has picked up any of Carr’s other books for reissuing, and his backlist remains exclusively available through his own publishing house, Quince Tree Press, which I believe is now run by his son. And which produces books of insanely baroque over-design.

  14. Isabel says:

    Kevin and Trevor – I feel for you right now.

    I can walk barefoot in the yard, if I wish.

    So, I enjoy the weather right now and will envy you in a few months.

    Thanks for your suggestions on summer reading. It’s on my list!

    I’ve run out out of books to read about Shackelton, so I need others.

  15. John Self says:

    Incidentally Kevin, looking up Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Alexie (I take it I have the right one), I note that it was first published in 2002 by a publishing house called Stoddart. Self-published initially perhaps?

  16. It is interesting, John. I didn’t find that out until after the post above (I’d been given it as a “first novel” which it is — Alexie has since written another one — I just didn’t know it was seven years old.) Stoddart did put it out in 2002 — and almost immediately went out of business. I found two reviews of that one (both from church publications — its central theme is about the fallout of abuse in native residential schools), although I didn’t do a super-extensive search. Alexie is a chief in the NWT and given the central issue and the lack of native Canadian authors, I can’t believe I didn’t hear about it. So my guess is it just fell off the map because of the bankruptcy and a lack of copies. I also found a reference that Penguin had published a hardcover version in 2004 — but can find no evidence of it anywhere beyond that mention. Looking around the used book sites, I can find a few copies of the Stoddart book and none of the Penguin volume. And to complicate matters further, the proof copy I read has a 2008 copyright, which would indicate Alexie has perhaps revised the book.

    The other reason that I think very few copies of the Stoddart version ever made it to market is that it is a truly exceptional work — I’ll admit I had tears flowing and I can’t remember the last book that did that to me. I intend to read it again before figuring out what my post should look like.

  17. Pip's Squeak says:

    A great book. The Harpole Report and The Battle of Pollock’s Crossing are just as good.The first is extremely funny; the second, enticingly vicious.

  18. AliceLynn says:

    The film never made it to a DVD release-even after a concerted effort and some fundraising efforts. But there is a website devoted to this task, and seems to have recent updates, that are hopeful

    http://amitc.org/TheQuest/quest.html

    I have a copy of the VHS print-which was put onto DVD by a film buff/seller-not a great print but still a gem-can’t remember the details of how I bought it, and I notice that it has been posted on youtube also.

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