A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr has been described to me many times as a perfect little novel. And yet I put off reading it because it sounded like too much I had read before about the wounds of the first world war, the things taken away, etc. Not that novels that take this subject up are suspect or trite or redundant in every circumstance. The post-war crisis of confidence was a pivotal point in history with often heartbreaking results for individuals. But ... well, I could put another from this line off for a little while.
But then on Friday, as I was spending the day in the bookstore, I took a few minutes to read the introduction to the NYRB edition of the novel in which Michael Holroyd discusses the playful, eccentric nature of Carr, and how all manner of tangential thinking comes to rest as a cohesive whole in A Month in the Country, his Booker nominated 1980 work. And then I started reading the book, and found, predictably given this large build-up, a perfect little novel. But not a novel of what the Great War took away, but what the trials of that war revealed, uncovered.
Tom Birkin has returned from the war to find that his wife, chronically unfaithful to him in his absence, has chosen to leave him for another. Birkin has acquired a stutter and a facial tick and suffers from nightmares - the after effects of his war experience. He takes what little remains for him and sets out for the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he has been hired to reveal a medieval mural that has been covered with hundreds of years of whitewash and the like.
As Birkin eyes what might be on that church wall, he thinks, "By nature we are creatures of hope, always ready to be deceived again, caught by the marvel that might be wrapped in the grubbiest brown paper parcel." He could be referring to the art uncovered, himself or any of the others around him in this small town when he refers to what is wrapped in brown paper. The small, fine things that distinguish people that remain unseen to most. Those differences between people at home and people out in the world that Carr is fond of exploring here. And the ways in which art captures a reality sometimes lost in the every day back and forth. The oddity of natural beauty perceived in art and not in nature.
It is a lovely and affecting little book.