Sunday, August 10, 2014

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, small glittering gem of a novel


NYRB Classics
$12.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In J. L. Carr's deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter's depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

My Review: A few, a precious few only, moments in life are trapped in the diamond facets of unforgettability. The moments that, in the movie we're all directing inside our heads at any given moment, define our character. In all senses of that word. Be they happy, sad, public, private, we all have them; very very few of us talk much about them; and almost no one makes art from them.

Carr made art from a crystalline moment. Cold, glittering art, fire banked in its facets, glinting at the reader from sly angles and unexpected edges. Was this akin to his own character defining moment? I certainly don't know, but I suspect so. It's the best explanation I have for small moments clearly real and recalled in fresh, bright colors and sharp, focused images.
She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road--not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against the limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they'd never met a Londoner before. They gave me what, in these parts, was called a knife-and-fork "do," a ham off the hook, a deep apple pie, and scalding tea. In conversation it came out that I'd been Over There (as they called it) and this spurred them to thrust more prodigious helpings upon me.
Novelists store moments like this, personal moments, in vaults that all of us have. The difference is the vault of the artist preserves all the details and nuances. Most of us come back from the vault with tatters and shreds; Carr, and others like him, come back with precious parures that flash a dazzle upon us commoners.

The genius of this short novel, under 50,000 words, is that it doesn't tart up the glory of the images with overwrought settings. Keep it simple, make it well, and quality will out. It is a joy to find laughs and savors in the same book. It is a rare joy to find them polished to a deep flash, set at just the right moment, and not vulgarly paraded for our approval but rather simply put in their proper place and left for us to notice as we will.

I made a run at this book after reading most of a very, very unhappy and terrible book. I was weighed down, felt that page-turning was labor. After a good sleep, I picked this gem up again and began at the beginning. It was the correct decision.
We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever--the ways things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a 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.
How much poorer my world would be without the quiet luxury of these images in it.

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