Short review: JL Carr “A Month in the Country”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the Penguin edition that I’ve just read. It sums up the novel well, but I will add couple of points of my own following the quotation:

J.L. Carr’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, first published in 1980 is a gem of a novel which explores the power of art to heal and restore. Tom Birkin, a damaged survivor of the First World War, is spending the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of [the ficitious Yorkshire village of] Oxgodby. Joined by another veteran employed to look for a grave outside the churchyard he uncovers old secrets that bear on his experiences of conflict.

It’s not a long book. In fact it’s one of those which in a way are pretty much novella length (such as Henry James’s Daisy Miller or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) but which get classed as novels because of the depth and scope of themes and overall ambition.

Birkin is a specialist, called in as part of the bequest of a recently deceased local woman, one Miss Hebron, charged with uncovering and restoring a wall painting in the local church. His counterpart- Moon- is an archaeologist given the job as part of the same bequest to look for “the grave of Miss Hebron’s forebear, one Piers Hebron” who died in 1373.

Art, and its capactiy to heal and restore through our own contemplation and enjoyment of it, is certainly a key theme of the novel, as the blurb writer alludes to. The steady rhythm of work certainly has a calming effect on the shellshocked Birkin. At one point he states that “this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content”.

However, it’s also about memory, and our own perceptions of certain events in our lives when we look back. It’s also about people. As the narrator, who is Tom Birkin in later life looking back, says, “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”.

In fact, the passage I quoted first about having a foot in both present and past see Birkin say a little later on that uncovering “a great work of art wasn’t all of it [i.e. helping to clam him and make him generally  more positive]. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers.”

And of course it’s a about the people listed above too, especially the Ellerbeck family who take a shine to Birkin, regularly having him over the Sunday lunch and getting him to help out at the Sunday school they run. And it’s also about Alice Keach, wife of the uptight vicar whose church it is that Birkin is working in. Birkin unquestionably gains much from his carefully practising his craft, which in turn uncovers the work of a great unknown artist in the church, but he also gains a lot from being immersed in a local community which accepts him. His relationship with the Vicar’s wife is altogether more problematic, but it seems even then that he comes away from this brief entangelement stronger in a way.

There’s not much in the way of out-and-out humour in the book, but I found the overall tone of it rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, straight to the point in an engaging way. In a sense this would jar with what we’d understand Birkin’s initial state of mind and general mood to have been, for not only was he shellshocked and plagued by a nervous twitch in his face as a result of his wartime experiences; it also transpires that his unfaithful wife has just run away with another man. However, it’s the old Hemingway-esque trick of making the tone and language jar with what’s being described, in order to make the reader fill in the emotional gap and make the full realisation for themselves.

Birkin’s tone as a narrator looking back is eaxctly what’s required, however, as it emphasises the distance in time and temerament from himself then as a young man in the very early 20s, to himself as an older man looking back at that healing month in the country. That month was the pivot in his life.

(The book was made into a 1987 film, which I’ve never seen, and just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you probably can’t judge an entire film by its trailer. However, on balance I won’t bother to seek out the film. While the book’s core story is strong enough to bear a film adaptation, there is far more depth to this novel than you can really replicate on screen: inevitably too much is lost, and not enough is gained. The tone set by the trailer feels over-serious to me, wheras the book’s various moods are far more lifelike in their ebb and flow, the highs and lows and in-betweens.)

Verdict: A straightforward but very deep book that is satisfying on every level, with pitch-perfect yet uncontrived symbolism. It’s also  a very quick read to boot. Perfect!








Coming late to Kipling.

Review of Rudyard Kipling, Collected [should read “Selected“] Short Stories, Everyman’s Classics.

Kipling remains a household name in all but the most book-bereft of homes, but how of much of him has the average reader actually read these days?

I don’t know if I’d be classed as an average reader,  but perhaps my experience of him is similar to other people’s. Had I been born at any time up to- say for argument’s sake- 1940,  I would probably have had a keen knowledge of Kipling. For boys and girls growing up in bookish households in the early and mid twentieth century, Kipling was part of the canon: the pick of the poems, Stalkey and Co, The Jungle Books and Kim were all childhood staples.

I am not suggesting that post-war children have not been reading Kipling. Far from it. But I think you could argue that the more general popular disregard of his work has led to fewer children reading him than he deserves.

Growing up in the 80’s, I suspect my own experience of Kipling was more the contemporary norm, in that I did not read Kipling, but knew the name. I remember going to see Disney’s “The Jungle Book” at the cinema around the age of 8 or 9 but perhaps I didn’t make the link. It certainly didn’t occur to me to read those stories, and I don’t remember Kipling being read to me at home.  At some stage a teacher in primary school might have read read my class some of the Just So stories.

Later on in my late teens or early twenties I began an oddly disjointed relationship with Kipling. He still remains popular as a poet, if only for one poem, “If”. I first encountered it around that time when it was voted “the nation’s (i.e. the United Kingdom’s) favourite poem”. However, I was vaguely aware that Kipling was the de facto “poet of empire”, and besides I saw Jim Davidson quoted in the paper as saying “If” was his favourite poem. So that was it as far as I was concerned. If Jim Davidson liked it, then I assumed that Kipling’s poetry was most certainly down at the cheaper end of British culture.

That could have been the end of things.

Except that around the same time, in my late teens, something strange happened. A local bookshop was having a closing down sale, and my mom came home with, among other things, a bargain copy of Mrs Bathurst and Other Stories publish by OUP.  I remember reading the title story as well as another neglected gem called “Proofs of Holy Writ”. The more mysterious and speculative of Kipling’s short stories are not the kind of thing you might expect a teenager to be reading, but I put prejudice aside and took them for what they were (“Mrs Bathurst” is a genuinely enigmatic and compelling story).

But I put the book aside again.  It was only years later, quite recently in fact, that Auden’s line from “In Memoriam W.B. Yeats” on how time “will pardon Kipling and his views” has come true in my case. Everyman books publish a “Collected Stories” of Kipling, which is as good a one-volume overview as you can get at the moment. Kipling wrote a great deal of stories, and there are a lot of selections out there. But if you want only one, or perhaps are new to the writer, then the Everyman is a very good book to have. Bear in mind, though, that the book is a ‘selected’ edition, and not a collected as claimed in the title. As for the actual selection on offer, I’d say it’s representative rather than definitive. Because Kipling was a master story teller who was also very prolific, any editor trying to make a selection is on a bit of a hiding to nothing, in that they’re bound to miss out something that some reader or other would consider essential. However, this is about as good an all-round collection as you could wish for. All the key periods of Kipling’s career are catered for, from the early Indian stories of his Plain Tales from the Hills period, to selections from “Stalkey and Co.” right up to some uncannily good later work. All of this goes to show what an under-rated writer of adult fiction he continues to be, especially in the United Kingdom.

I’ll just pick three examples from among many of the treasures to be found here, in order to convey why I like him so much. First there’s “Mrs Bathhurst” which is a tale of desire, and which  roams right across the British Empire. Then there’s “The Man Who would be King” which is one of the greatest stories written by anyone anywhere ever, and sums up far better than the poem “The White Man’s Burden” the dangerous obsessions with riches, power and prestige that continue to drive would-be empire builders to this day. And finally there’s a late, post- World War I story called “The Gardener” which deals with the emotional aftermath of losing a child in that dreadful conflagration. Even the most rabid anti-Kiplingite would have to admit that it is touching and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sentimentality. In fact here’s a trick to play on your literary friends. Read them “The Gardener” without them knowing who it’s by, and then see if they can guess the author. Kipling’s might well be the last name to spring to mind.

There is plenty more to confound expectation here, as well as stories to shock, delight, make you laugh, make you think, make you smile and to send a shiver down your spine. The settings for a lot of these stories will surprise you too. I can think of very few writers with the sheer imagination to write so convincingly about so many diverse kinds of people in so many diverse settings and epochs. He even tried his hand at a kind of proto-science fiction, an example of which is included. Above all these stories will make you realise that, for all his faults, there is far more to Kipling than “If”, the Jungle Book and his being the de facto poet of Empire. One thing I think any intelligent reader would have to agree is that at his very best he was one of the greatest english writers ever, and in having this book you will have most of his strongest work right there in your hands.

As if to square the circle, my son has recently started dipping into the  Just So stories. He is also the proud owner of a 1930’s edition of the Jungle Books, which we found in a second hand shop. After the reading the first couple of pages he found them irresistible. I think it goes to show that good writing is what matters, regardless of our feelings about the writer. So whether we see Kipling as a deeply dodgy relic of our colonial past, or as a misunderstood genius, it might be worth ‘treating those two imposters just the same’ and putting them aside once and for all, while we get on with the more serious work of judging his works on their individual merits.