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a month in the country

6 february 2015

It is both depressing and oddly consoling to realize that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of great books, already written, that I will never get to read – in fact, never even get to know about.

I would never have known about A Month in the Country if I hadn't run across it for 66 cents at my local thrift store, and even that was a near thing, because I throw back the vast majority of my catch there, even items from presses as interesting as New York Review, and even novels blurbed by no less than Penelope Fitzgerald. But it was a "slim volume," as they say, and I read at whim anyway, so I bought it and worked it into my queue.

A Month in the Country begins quietly. It uses the device of a living narrator telling of things that happened to him long ago, so it can be at once both historical and contemporary fiction. The contemporary moment may well be 1980; the historical one is 1920. The narrator, Birkin, is not long back from the Western Front. He's been to architecture school, and his professional specialty is restoring, indeed discovering, long-hidden artworks. He travels to the north of England, where for a pittance and found he is authorized to spend the summer chipping old plaster off a old master mural in a village church.

The pace is as deliberate as the summer is warm; there's not much incentive for Birkin to hurry. Working alongside him in the churchyard is a certain Moon, himself a veteran, equally on the verge of a great discovery and equally unanxious to get over the verge. Birkin sleeps in the church and attends chapel; Moon sleeps in a pit under a tent and scoffs at all belief.

And slowly, obliquely, Birkin falls in love, much deeper than he knows. (Not with Moon, by the way, but one is less sure about Moon's feelings for Birkin.) I'd encourage you to read the book, so I won't spoil its plot, except to say that the last half-dozen pages turn an admirable short novel into a truly great one; they are worked for, earned, and meticulously set up to devastate and (my theme in this review, I guess) oddly console the reader.

In other words, you're reading a writer's writer, a real pro. Birkin too is an artistic pro, though he disclaims real talent. But he observes, as his restoration progresses,

You know how it is when a tricky job is going well because you're doing things the way they should be done, when you're working in rhythm and feel a reassuring confidence that everything's unraveling naturally and all will be right in the end. That's about it: I knew what I was doing—it's really what being professional means. (46)
"It's quite exciting," Birkin later remarks, "to watch a professional at work if you bother to look" (122), and the application to watching J.L. Carr is inescapable, though he too may have eschewed it. An introduction by Michael Holroyd to the 2000 New York Review edition depicts an idiosyncratic and fiercely independent artist – so idiosyncratic that you half-imagine that Michael Holroyd created him and his book out of whole cloth. But no, there are Wikipedia pages and obituaries online to attest to his existence, and two short-listings for the Booker Prize to vouch for his critical acclaim.

But A Month in the Country is not like many other books. I was slightly reminded of Jean Echenoz's 14 and its oblique approach to the First World War; of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited – in only the most tangential sense, really, that of looking backwards into a world of beauty; of Fitzgerald's Beginning of Spring and Gate of Angels, of Michael Ondaatje's English Patient: and that really only because there's a church painting in both; though come to think of it both are novels of the aftermath of war.

Carr, J.L. A Month in the Country. 1980. New York: New York Review Books, 2000. PR 6053 .A694M6