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Elizabeth Baines

Please see archive for our discussion of Milkman by Anna Burns

December 2019
A Month in the Country
J L Carr

Warning: plot spoil.

John's suggestion, this slim book, published in 1980 and Booker-shortlisted, is the first-person narration of Tom Birkin, old now but looking back to a time when, as a young man traumatised by the first world war, he was employed for a summer to uncover a medieval church painting in the (fictional) Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. As the painting is slowly revealed, and as he makes contact with the people around him and absorbs the peace and beauty of the rural surroundings, Tom moves slowly towards psychological healing.

Some commentaries seem to see the book as rooted in a perception of English pastoral and of English cultural heritage as constants that can heal, and indeed admire it as such. We didn't think it was as simple as that.

For one thing, narrator Birkin makes several references to the fact that the world described - a world of horses and oil lamps - is a world gone. John had begun by suggesting that perhaps the book was in consequence nostalgic - and nostalgia, as he pointed out, is often linked to nationalism and even fascism. He pointed to the moment when narrator Birkin appears to bemoan the fact that the strong dialect of the place at that time, 'that splendid twang', is probably now flattened by 'comprehensive schools and the BBC ... with their dread stamp.' At the same time, however, there is a certain paradoxical patronisation and 'othering' in Birkin's attitude to the dialect: he says it 'might have been ... a foreign language' and replicates it phonetically (a mode I nearly always find patronising), and says seemingly without censure that the English of the local lay preachers was 'so wild' that the organist and choir 'choked behind their handkerchiefs'. John added here that in fact he had found the character Birkin rather dubious - he appears to read the Daily Mail (known for its fascist sympathies between the wars), and, narrating the story, the older Birkin tells us that when he first arrived at the village, struggling through unmoving passengers to get his kit off the train, he thought (xenophobically), 'If this was a fair sample of northerners, then this was enemy country so I wasn't too careful where I put my boots.' (John also pointed out that Birkin shares his name with the protagonist of Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence, an author whose sometimes paradoxically reactionary tendencies have often been noted, and I would agree that Carr's book does have something of a Lawrentian tone.)

Others in the group however weren't so sure that the book was nostalgically reactionary, and when it came to the matter of cultural heritage John wasn't sure, either. The painting Birkin is painstakingly uncovering is not exactly a site of peaceful resolution, but rather of disruption and mystery. A Judgement, depicting the Righteous 'trooping off to Paradise' and the Damned 'dropping into the bonfire' of hell, it turns out to be a 'masterpiece', created with expensive materials including gold leaf (at least to depict the Saved). So why, Birkin wonders, was it covered over with limewash? And there is something disruptive and strange in the painting itself: the Damned are executed more crudely, apart from one figure which stands out from the rest - vivid with bright hair and a crescent-shaped scar on his forehead and tortured by demons in a startling Breughelesque style long before Breughel himself, a figure Birkin comes to refer to as the 'falling man.'

While Birkin is working on the painting, an archeologist, Moon, is camped in the nearby meadow and digging, employed by the local heiress, before her death, to look for the grave of an ancestor discovered to have been excommunicated and thus likely to be buried outside the churchyard. Privately, however, he is taking the opportunity to uncover the remains of an early chapel, the signs of which he has spotted from an aeroplane. The two strike up a companionship. Moon sees the depiction of the Damned in the painting as reminiscent of the tortures of the trenches which he too had experienced, although Birkin, seeking calm from the painting's artistry, is reluctant to see it in that light. As the book comes to a close, as both the summer and the men's employment come to an end, Moon calls Birkin to help him uncover the grave where all along he has guessed (from a depression seen from the air) that it lies, just outside the churchyard wall. What they uncover is a true revelation (and the clear reason for the ancestor's excommunication). Inside the tomb lies the skeleton of a man wearing a chain with a crescent - a noble ancestor who clearly converted to Islam on a Crusade, and whom Moon immediately realises is the 'falling man' of Birkin's painting.

Thus the novel seems in fact to be actively challenging the very myth of English Christian heritage and continuity that the covering over of the painting was clearly intended to preserve and to which the young Birkin cleaves (and which some have seen the novel as relishing). A look at the author's Foreword is perhaps instructive. There the author admits that when he set out to write the book he did indeed have in mind simply to depict a 'rural idyll', and although it was a world 'irrecoverably lost', to have his narrator 'look back [on it] regretfully' (ie regretting its loss; ie nostalgically). However, he tells us, 'original intentions slip away. And I found myself looking through another window at a darker landscape inhabited by neither the present nor the past.' The character of young Birkin can be seen as representing this shift, in particular in his attitude to the young wife of the vicar, Alice Keach. To him she represents an idyllic beauty and goodness - 'I was reminded of Botticelli... - the Primavera' - and he falls romantically in love with her, and sees her as horrifically trapped by her older, ascetic husband, the Reverend Keach. By the end of the novel, however, he must come to terms with the fact that it is a useless love, and there is a growing maturity in his recognition that the vicar, who is suddenly more open with him, is more complex than he had allowed. ' "It's not easy, he said. "I wasn't always, well, not as I may appear to be." ... And partly ... he was right: we had cast him in the role of a sour paymaster'. Finally, as the older Birkin recounts his youthful departure from the village, his 'land of lost content', he muses: 'We can ask and ask but we can't have what once seemed ours forever'. 'This was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off,' he tell us, but it's clear that Birkin is now embarked on a lifelong lesson. After all, his initial hostility to the locals very quickly turned to affection, and his faults, often commented on by the more mature Moon, can be seen as primed to be erased by that journey.

Clare, or maybe Jenny, noted that the title, 'A Month in the Country' is a misnomer, since Birkin spends a whole summer in Oxgodby. Others pointed to the fact that one of the names (the vicar's first name, I think) changes halfway through the novel, and it was clear that these were editing errors due to the fact that the book was initially self-published. On the whole, we thought, in view of this last fact, the book was impeccably written in terms of correctness.

Everyone liked the book, and I was the only one not to have entirely enjoyed reading it. I'm afraid I found the overall tone foygeish - something which does seem to me reactionary - and the conversations between Birkin and Moon artificial and indeed sometimes twee (not to mention my discomfort at the way the dialect was represented). It hadn't struck any of the others that way, however, and since I read the book during the long day in the hospital cafe as I waited while John had a three-hour operation and then lay for a worryingly long time in the recovery room, I thought at the time of the discussion that maybe I hadn't given the book the commitment it deserved.

I must say that some of the connections and meanings I've outlined above weren't clear to me on that first reading, registering only when I trawled through the book to write this. I failed to register, for instance, the fact of the shape of the scar on the forehead of the falling man in the painting, as well as the significance of the painting's quality, and the relevance of this to the fact that it has been hidden. The quality of the painting - the fact that certain expensive pigments had been used rather than others - didn't in fact strike me as being of particular interest. Nor did Moon's arrangements and his motives for being there, which were consequently hazy to me. But then John now says that he missed the same things, and looking back at our group discussion I sense that others did too: none of these details were actually mentioned in the discussion, and there was indeed some puzzled wondering about the significance of the Muslim-converted ancestor as well as about some of the characters, in particular Moon and the vicar. I do wonder on reflection if this was a result of a failure of pacing and attention in the writing - ie a failure to slow down or construct the narrative at significant moments to correctly direct the reader's attention. Moon's arrangements and motives, for instance, are conveyed via dialogue (or rather a speech): he tells Birkin about them on their first meeting in a conversation that is potentially superficial, since we don't yet know Moon's character (and therefore how much importance to give anything he says), and when the reader's attention is directed rather towards the drama of the encounter and the interaction between the two men. The information about the composition of the painting is conveyed in a similar way: it is one of the things Birkin tells Alice Keach when she sits watching him work, when again the chief interest is the drama of the situation, ie his unexpressed attraction to her, and when it's possible that his emotions are forcing him to gabble (although much of the dialogue throughout the book consists of somewhat artificial speechifying). And although the matter of the mystery of the painting is sometimes located in Birkin's private musings (rather than in dialogue with others), as I say, it didn't impress me as it should (John and I both failing to register the shape of the scar in the painting) and I do wonder now if this is a function of the foygeishness I thought I detected in the overall voice of the novel, a rhythmic over-smoothness stemming from a fundamental complacency concerning meaning and significance.

Next discussion (January) (Ann's suggestion): Pinic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

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