Wednesday, 4 September 2013

a month in the country [j l carr]

Carr’s book deceived me. It’s a title that lurks in a somewhat unspecified fashion as a minor classic of c20th British literature. I came across a reference to it in an academic history of the British countryside in the 20th Century. The book deals with the immediate aftermath of the Great War, as its protagonist, Birkin, recovering from shellshock and a marriage broken by the war, heads to North Yorkshire to work on restoring a medieval fresco in a village church.

The story is slight, at a mere 100 pages or so, and atmospheric, rather than driven by plot. In the isolated village, under an August sun, Birkin gradually recuperates. He strikes up a friendship with an archaeologist, falls for the vicar’s wife, and discovers a centuries-old mystery snared in the images the church fresco reveals. All of this is told in an understated, nostalgic prose. The events which Birkin experiences are less significant than the way in which they contribute to his recovery. The book is an artful paean, which makes reference to Houseman and Elgar. There is a pleasantly multi-cultural surprise in the revelation of the fresco’s mystery. But above all it is a homage to a lost time and place, an England where villages still had the feel of a hobbit’s shire, where it was possible to feel oneself lost in its bounty.

Carr’s deceit, I learnt upon concluding the book, is that it is a text written in the latter half of the twentieth century, by a man who was born during the course of the 1st World War. A Month in the Country is unembroidered fiction. Any documentary pretensions are merely that. Nevertheless, it succeeds in convincing, perhaps because of its slightly ad hoc approach, that the author or narrator indeed lived during that time in that England, a time when the rupture of the future was on the cusp of being finalised, destroying a way of life which had subsisted for centuries, not quite ended yet, the past clinging on by its fingernails.

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