A Year with Short Novels: J.L. Carr’s Chance for Renewal
By J.L. Carr
New York Review of Books Classics, 2000
(Originally published in 1980)
Happiness is a rare subject. Pain, disillusionment, and misfortune are well documented. Great novels turn on betrayals and confrontations: adulteries and wars; tragic misunderstandings and sudden upheavals of the heart. Plot is driven by conflict (or so the chorus goes). Revelations propel narratives.
Happiness, on the other hand, is trickier. Happiness is static, rarely dramatic. Instead of sudden twists of action and circumstance, it yields subtleties. Contentment builds slowly and steadily build; joyemerges fully-formed from a beautiful collision of time and place. Wonderful in life but, in a book, usually the conclusion of a drama or foregrounding for a tragedy; rarely the foreground. A narrative that dwells in an idyll tends to spin its wheels before too long. Problems of mood also present themselves. Happiness has an elusive texture and an individual nature—easily sensed, but difficult to share or recount. Traps of sticky nostalgia and the lure of over-exuberance can easily waylay the most skilled writer. One risks singeing bliss by overstating it.
I’m thankful, then, for the sure and steady hand of J.L. Carr. In A Month in the Country, Carr tells a tale of happiness which burnishes such a strong and subtle impression in the mind of the reader that it seems you yourself have passed through the season of contentment Carr describes.
In the summer of 1920, Tom Birkin is called up to a church in the small village of Oxgodby to restore a medieval wall painting, a task deeded in the will of an eccentric and recently-deceased gentrywoman, Miss Hebron. The painting is barely visible, covered by seemingly indelible layers of grime, lime-wash, plaster, and stove smoke. Birkin’s heart is equally neglected. He arrives in Oxgodby with searing memories of World War I, a facial twitch from exposure to gas at the Battle of Passchendeale, and an ego shattered by a flighty, vindictive wife who remains in London with a lover.
During his stay, Birkin slowly recovers a sense of beauty and of equanimity. The novel is, among other things, a hymn to professionalism: Birkin gradually saves a masterpiece of medieval painting from decay, bringing out the vivid forms and colors of a final judgement scene and the steady work heals him, too. Happiness sneaks up on him. He becomes enmeshed in the life of the town, is drawn into the rhythms of the verdant, northern summer, and tacitly falls in love with the vicar’s young and beautiful wife, Alice Keach.
Religion hovers around the novel. Birkin is, after all, restoring a vivid biblical scene in a village church. The subtle social distinctions of worship in England — who belongs to the small nonconformist chapel versus the large Anglican church where Birkin works — animate life in Oxgodby. Bells ring and organs bellow across the pages. But Birkin is a non-believer, and the story that delicately unfurls is a deeply humanistic one, in which pleasure is earthly and fleeting — and all the more precious because of its finitude.
But the tale gathers force and focus precisely because of its brief span. The novel’s short length enables Carr to simply dwell in a period of happiness, circling daily satisfactions and peeling away layers of atmosphere. Carr’s masterful understatement parallels the skilled method of his protagonist. Birkin works by slowly bringing out the picture he has been tasked with recovering: “like a jigsaw—a face, a hand, a shoe, here a bit and there a bit. And then, imperceptibly, it would come together.”
Just as Birkin slowly labors to bring out the painting, Carr brings takes time to set each scene with the unhurried, contemplative ease of a professional. Just as the vision of the medieval artist Birkin shadows was confined by the size of the church ceiling, the novel is contained by the finite space of a task and a season. Carr plumbs the subleties of the small world he creates. The self-contained nature of the story provides depth rather than length.
And as with Birkin’s mural, the scenes imperceptibly add up to a whole. Carr draws out details planted in the first dozen pages as the book concludes. A Month in the Country is short enough that the reader can easily take in the whole tale or stop to delve into layers: evocations of beauty, the subtle portrait of Birkin’s shell shock, the sense of loss as Birkin looks across decades at a time when he was happy.
Ultimately, J.L. Carr’s novel fits Birkin’s own back-handed description of a great work of art, which he contemplates after a day’s work in the church:
So there I was…knowing that I had a master-piece on my hands but scarcely prepared to admit it, like a greedy child hoards the best chocolates in the box. Each day I used to avoid taking in the whole by giving exaggerated attention to the particular. Then, in the early evening, when the westering sun shone in past my baluster briefly to light the wall, I would step back, still purposefully not letting my eyes focus on it. Then I looked.
It was breathtaking. (Anyway, it took my breath.) A tremendous waterfall of color, the blues of the apex falling, then seething into a turbulence of red; like all truly great works of art, hammering you with its whole before beguiling you with its parts.
Birkin’s informal and self-effacing tones, even as he recounts a description of deep beauty, make his contentment real to the reader. The passage typifies the wry and reverent style of A Month in the Country‘s narration. The way Birkin depicts what is clearly one of the happiest periods of his life without sanding its rough edges or over-playing its significance owes much to distance: though little is foreshadowed, Birkin is narrating his summer in Oxgodby decades after the fact.
The slight remove of memory gives Carr the opportunity to occasionally break from a pure description of events. Of his first day in Oxgodby, Birkin recalls the look of the land, where “dew glittered on the graveyard grass, gossamer drifted down air-currents, a pair of blackbirds picked around after insects, a thrush was singing where I could see him in one of the ash trees. And beyond lay the pasture…and then more fields rising towards a dark rim of hills.” He realizes that he can live quite frugally without rent to pay (to the Vicar Keach’s consternation, he stays in the belfry), and feels the promise of the beautiful landscape and of having a project to complete:
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.
Birkin is honest about the feeling of wholeness and promise, and of how deeply the town’s beauty penetrates him. But, like a draftsman who adds shadows to bring out the full color of what he depicts, Carr’s motif of an older Birkin recounting his youth brings in a note of melancholy in a last off-hand sentence, rounding out the section:
This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.
Well, we live by hope.
The passage of time makes Birkin clear-eyed rather than saccharine or nostalgic. The story has a suspended, temporal nature: it begins the moment Birkin gets off the train and ends the day he leaves Oxgodby. The summer’s passing and Birkin’s completion of his job gives the story a natural momentum, while the understated authority of Birkin’s mature voice highlights its finite nature. But the sense of Oxgodby’s (fleeting) place in time serves to underscore rather than erode Birkin’s inner renewal.
During the course of his stay in Oxgodby, change truly does occur. Slowly but surely, Birkin regains his confidence. His facial twitch lessens. He is aware of the rare fortune of coming into a community and feeling himself part of it. A solid and satisfying intimacy develops between him and Alice Keach, and he reflects on the wonderful feeling of being “secretly in love, coddling it up in myself…. In books, often as not, they represent it as a sort of anguish but it wasn’t so for me. Later perhaps, but not then.” The foreshadowing that Birkin’s equanimity may not last serves to heighten the reader’s appreciation for what is beautiful about the story. The novel is deeply felt and hard to shake precisely because of its mixing of happiness and brevity.
The evocation of fleeting bliss doesn’t just inhere in the long glance back at a lost time. It comes from Birkin’s past and the recent war, too. The soldiers’ death-haunted sense of life’s brevity constantly colors Birkin’s appreciation of what is around him.
Carr never gives a full exposition of Birkin’s experience in war; nor does he bury it. Hints of the trauma simply come up naturally as the story unfurls, especially in Birkin’s friendship with Charles Moon, who is also doing excavation work at the church. Moon is a veteran—he immediately recognizes Birkin. At their first meeting, Moon invites him to have tea and Birkin demurs. “Oh come on,” Moon says to him, matter-of-factly. “I don’t need to be told you didn’t catch that twitch on the North-Eastern Railway, so we may as well start straight away swapping stories about the same bloody awful place. Come over and have a mug. God knows we both must have wondered if we’d ever drink another.”
Their mutual experience hangs over their friendship like a shadow; Carr brilliantly evokes the tacit camaraderie of soldiers. When Birkin asks, “Do you think about it often?,” Moon instantly knows what he means. And sometimes, as smoke rises from Moon’s pipe during the morning teas which become habitual, Birkin thinks he catches his friend looking at him speculatively, as if to ask, “Now who are you? Who have you left behind in the kitchen? What befell you Over There to give you that God-awful twitch? Are you here to crawl back into the skin you had before they pushed you through the mincer?”
Birkin is a wondrously self-contained character. Insights into his past are striking because they are rare. His focus pivots between past trauma and appreciation of the present with breath-taking ease. One day Alice comes to watch Birkin work in the church, asking him questions and sitting in the pews and looking up at the painting while he labors (watching their rapport develop is one of the great pleasures of the novel). She stares up at the vivid judgement scene Birkin is laboring on, and asks whether he believes in hell:
Now that was a thought! Hell? Passchendaele has been hell. Bodies split, heads blown off, groveling fear, shrieking fear, unspeakable fear! The world made mud! But I knew it was Bible hell she had in mind, hell that went on and on, an aching timeless hell. So I answered, “Well it depends. Hell’s different things to different people and different things to the same person at different times.”
She didn’t question this: I swear she read my mind. She knew. “Then what about hell on earth?” she said.
I told her I’d seen it and lived there and that, mercifully, they usually left an exit open. Then neither of us spoke for a longish time, and I thought that there might be something to be said for seasons in hell because, when we’d dragged ourselves back from the bloodiness, life had seemed brighter than we’d remembered it. We sloughed off the pals who’d gone down into death. While it was day that is. At night, in the dark, for a time they came back but we wanted no part of what they now were: theirs was another world—hell, if you care to call it that.
The happiness depicted in A Month in the Country is wise and wary, aware of its temporality. When he arrives in Oxgodby, Birkin knows very well life is not all ease and intimacy, long summer days with “winter always loitering around the corner.” He has experienced emotional cruelty in his failed marriage. As a soldier, he witnessed death: destruction and unending mud.
But the edges are brighter for it. Birkin’s idyll in the country is brought into relief by what Birkin has gone through in the past and the disappointments that, it is implied, await him. Carr’s great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it. In a world where the most vivid heavens and hells are of our creation, Carr suggests, paradise and purgatory are deeply personal. What we value most in life, then, may also be the most difficult to share. After all, though the tacit love between Birkin and Alice is one of the most beautiful and memorable aspects of the book, it really amounts to little: the layers of affinity and implication that grow in their conversations, a blush flaming Alice’s pale cheeks, her vanishing laughter which sounds, “like…well, like a bell.” Towards the end of the story, before Birkin’s departure, they nearly kiss. “Then everything would have been different. My life, hers.”
But he says and does nothing.
No melodrama is wrung out of the notion of the missed opportunity, but Birkin realizes he failed to act and thus rendered his experience merely a matter of personal savoring, a “what if” rather than a “what.” Carr suggests the way that he holds onto the suspended promise of the affair in an earlier passage. After Birkin visits Rev. Keach to ask for his paycheck, Alice walks him out of the house to a clearing, pausing by a bush of roses blossoming in a patch of gravel. She picks one for him and tells him it’s a Sara van Fleet. Her favorite kind, it keeps on blooming into autumn. “Even if you don’t visit us again, you’ll know—I usually wear one in my hat.” She plucks a single pink rose and hands it to him.
“That rose, Sara van Fleet . . . I still have it. Pressed in a book,” Birkin reflects. “Someday, after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.” The observation perfectly encapsulates unconsummated love’s bittersweet mixture of beauty and possibility. More than that, the rose is perfect metaphor for the book, which describes the happiness of a time long-faded but still treasured.
We all have our Sara van Fleet roses, tumbling out of the pages of memory. Insignificant to a stranger, perhaps, but deeply meaningful, they die with us. Carr makes us aware of life’s precious, fleeting nature. But he does more than that. By rendering such moments, A Month in the Country provides wellspring of contentment which can be repeatedly dipped into and shared. The novel is almost as great of a gift as Alice’s rose.
Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.