Tag Archives: A Month in the Country

Reading on time

My mind has been on the passing of time as the lockdown continued. At some point I decided to stop viewing the confinement as some kind of hiatus and accept that it was just how we are living at this time. It helped. But I think a lot about how many days, what we did this time last year, when will we be able to do some things again. It is a theme in fiction as well.

Here’s a celebration to enjoy of days, weeks, months and even years in fiction and memoir.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
  • The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1931)
  • A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
  • The Years by Virginia Woolf (1937)
  • The Years by Annie Ernaux (2008, in English translation 2019)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This is a kind of riff on Mrs Dalloway. The title was Virginia Woolf’s own first idea for her novel. Set in three different times and locations The Hours examines society and its difficulties. As someone who has loved reading and rereading Virginia Woolf, I find it adds a new perspective to the original without detracting from it. We have a version featuring Virginia Woolf herself, another with an American suburban housewife from the 1950s and the third set in recent decades in New York, when HIV/AIDS was rampant. 

It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film (2002), largely successful. 

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

When I reviewed this thriller six years ago, I noted that rereading it had allowed me to appreciate more its admirable features. You can find that review here.  

It is set in London during the Second World War, and follows a couple of lovers, Stella and Robert, and a creepy man who appears to be a stalker. But the dilemma this man Harrison, presents to Stella is at the heart of the tension. Sometimes Elizabeth Bowen’s writing forces the reader to slow down and pay attention. Overall it is an excellent and highly recommended novel.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is another book that is worth rereading. I find it hard to get Anthony Hopkins out of mind as the butler, Stevens, who narrates the novel. He remembers his experiences in the years leading up to the Second World War. We see that he was in love with the housekeeper, but let the opportunity to be with her slip away. He also places loyalty to his employer over everything and fails to see what he is up to. What remains of his day for Stevens is being in service to a new American employer.

The Fortnight in September

I reviewed this in a recent post, enjoying the lack of exciting plot events or twists and noting that the annual family holiday gave pleasure to the Stevens family because everything was so familiar and a repetition of previous years.

Set between the wars as the family go on holiday to Bognor, it becomes clear that it will be their last fortnight. Everything is changing, as it does.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr 

This short novel is much loved by book bloggers and reading groups. My own extended comments can be found here

Set in the 1920s, in the north of England, a young man comes to recover from his failed marriage and his wartime experiences. He works as a restorer of church murals and finds much to help him recover in the village: the mural, the vicar’s wife, his friends the archaeologist and the teenage nonconformist Kathy, the villagers and the countryside. It’s a very beautiful novel about acceptance of damage and variation among people.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I am tempted to use the word forensic about Joan Dideron’s analysis of the year following the sudden death of her husband and the seriously illness of their daughter. 

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

She writes compellingly with sparseness and great precision. She provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

You can read my expanded thought on her account here

The Years by Virginia Woolf

As we near the end of this collection, we return to Virginia Woolf and her last published novel, The Years, which looks at the Pargiter family from 1880s to the 1930s in eleven episodes. This is the only novel of hers that I have not yet read. It gave her great pain in the writing, according to her diary. 

I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown, and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I am rid of it. [Tuesday 10th November 1936]

She began it in 1933 and only finished it three years later. It was well received when it published. I look forward to tackling it myself.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This book is a kind of collective memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

The main character of this collective memoir is time itself. She notes that ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

This is a novel I had some awareness of, but had never read, never put it in my tbr pile. But when the commemorations for the end of the First World War were taking place last month it appeared on several reading lists. How can I have missed it, ignored it for so long? It’s a jewel and was recognised as such when it was first published in 1980 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

It’s not just a novel about the damage of war. It is more about the value of having one or two really good experiences in life, about restorative processes and having good times in the past to draw on. If like me you have not taken much notice of it I recommend that you do now.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country is set in the 1920s, in a village called Oxgodby, somewhere up north. The narrator is Tom Birkin, a young man, physically damaged and mentally strained during the First World War and recently abandoned by his wife. He has come to the village to restore a mural in the parish church. It is a task he does not relish because he expects the villagers to be unfriendly and the mural to be a disappointment.

Despite being a short novel the characters he meets are all well-rounded people, with their own difficulties and histories. Some are less easy to like, such as the vicar who seems to be unable to see beyond the mundane. He is concerned that Tom’s contract is correctly observed and has little respect for the old boiler that heats the church.

In contrast is Kathy Ellerbeck. Tom is befriended by this child of about 14, the stationmaster’s daughter and who has complete understanding of herself and her village, a love of music and the knowledge of how to relate to Tom.

Then there is Moon, a kind of amateur archaeologist, also damaged during the war, who lives in a tent visible from Tom’s church tower. They strike up a friendship. And the vicar’s wife and the stationmaster and and and …

These are not pastiche yokels like in Cold Comfort Farm, rather they challenge Tom’s sense that companionship will be restricted in a village or by northerners.

He begins the novel in retreat, living alone in the church tower, with few possessions, and an expectation of being treated as an outsider. Instead he finds the month becomes idyllic as he is accepted warmly, admired for his skill and he even falls for the vicar’s wife. Their welcome into the village has a restorative effect on him.

He also encounters and admires great workmanship. It starts with the church boiler but he quickly develops great respect for the artist who created the mural. And later he visits an organ shop in Rippon where there is more to admire.

And the rural landscape, the late summer countryside rituals, the long golden late summer evenings, these also work some kind of magic. Until it is time to leave.

A Month in the Country  is very short, too short for anything as definite as chapters. Almost all the narrative relates to the month of the title, there is very little about what preceded this time, or what followed. We learn that Tom was conscripted into the army and had been an Advance Signaller while in action, a role from which few returned. We also find that he did not follow up any connection he made during that month, or revisit the village. He has been writing this account from the perspective of an old man. This is how the novel finishes.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the field, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago. And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby. So in my memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow. (104)

His account of the month in Oxgodby reminds us of the variousness of humans, how we cast people as outsiders for physical deformity, religion, sexuality, place of origin. Beyond those barriers connection, recovery and love can be found.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr, first published in 1980. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition published in 2000, with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. 104pp

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