I love this book.
J.L.Carr was a gem of a novelist and this is his masterpiece. A month in the country (1980) is pretty much perfect. It says more in 120 pages than most novels three times its length do. There is so much going on. And yet the feel is of a leisurely internal idyll, deceptively portrayed with a light, gentle, mostly humorous touch as things unfold in parallel with the revelatory physical task that drives the action.
A young man, damaged in the First World War, cuckolded and abandoned in marriage, a Londoner, steps down from the train in the North Yorkshire village of Oxgodby in the glorious summer of 1920. Newly out of art college, he’s there to uncover a whitewashed over medieval wall painting in the local Anglican church, his employ the result of a bequest in a local spinster’s will which is being reluctantly abided by. Similarly financed in the field next to the graveyard is an archaeologist, another survivor of the war, tasked with finding the grave of the good lady’s ancestor who was deemed for his sins unworthy of burial in the graveyard. The wall painting is what is known as a ‘judgment’ – a depiction of the consignment of the dead to heaven or hell. Without giving much away, the two men’s tasks are found to be related, though the archaeologist is actually working a bit of a con, dragging out his time to further his own professional research.
The tale is told 58 years on as a melancholic memoir with no hint as to what has happened since, our man looking back thankfully with a joy mingled with resignation and regret at a magic restorative time in his life. Living modestly, a man of no religion (the war had done that for him) sleeping in the church where he is working, he is adopted by a chapel family, who feed him up of a Sunday and gradually involve him – to the reader’s delight – in various local activities. He is visited poignantly while he works by the joyless Anglican vicar’s beautiful young wife. That’s it really. He is changed by the wonderfully portrayed northern English village and those of its people he meets, and they, in a lesser fashion, are touched by him. The painting is uncovered – it’s a fine one of its kind – and he goes away again. A month in the country is an elegy but so much more. Episodes and exchanges abound to bely its modest 120 pages, its modest prose; this is a book big in its thoughts and themes, and a lovely English one too. G.K.Chesterton* once claimed “… great poets use the telescope and also the microscope.” With J.L.Carr you only find the telescope in the spaces in between. A month in the country sings – he mentions Elgar in passing – and it is deep; if you haven’t already you will probably read it more than once.
Here’s a taste from near the end:
The next day was Saturday and, now that Moon was done, I decided to bring the job to its end. So I sent word that I shouldn’t be able to umpire for the team at Steeple Sinderbury and, after working through the morning, came down about two o’clock. I took my bread and cheese outside, half hoping Moon would still be about. But he wasn’t and, later, I found that he’d gone to York on the morning train.
So I sat on Elijah’s tomb slab, and when I’d eaten and smoked a Woodbine, fell asleep sprawled across the warm stone, one arm behind my head. When I awoke Alice Keach must have been there for some time because she was smiling. ‘I thought I’d find you here,’ she said. ‘when I saw you weren’t with the cricketers waiting by the Shepherd. I’ve brought you a bag of apples. They’re Ribstone Pippins; they do well up here; I remember you saying you liked a firm apple.’
We talked about apples. It seemed that her father had been a great apple man.
Moon is the archaeologist, Alice the vicar’s wife. Now that may seem mundane, no doubt, to some, but I hear simple unaffected charm; though I haven’t smoked for decades I tasted that one, and my heart positively leapt at the mention of Steeple Sinderbury. Blessed intertextuality! Because J.L.Carr was also responsible for the finest of football novels – as selected by the When Saturday Comes magazine, albeit a long time ago but I’ve not encountered anything to touch it since – the modestly splendid How Steeple Sinderbury Wanderers won the FA Cup (1975). He’s also responsible for a decent cricket novel in A season in Sinji (1967) and the hilarious and rather moving The Harpole Report (1972), that deals with happenings in a primary school which Google says has achieved cult status in the teaching profession; and which I would love to read again but my copy seems to have gone missing in the house move (or we lent it to a teacher and it never came back).
*The Chesterton quote is from the essay
‘A dead poet’ which was collected in
his ‘All things considered’ of 1908.