About a year ago, there was a great series on short novels in Open Letters Montly, in which writer Ingrid Norton read and discussed a new novel each month. She argued that there was something unique about the genre and in the age of multi-volume epics, we should be looking more carefully at the stories that round out at under 200 pages.
Of course after reading her series, I realized that there were a lot of short novels I had never paid much attention to and began to read some of the same books she had read. Since then, I’ve been somewhat fascinated by the more obscure short works by authors, whether it be Henry James or William Faulkner. Whenever some writer mentions a “short novel” it goes on my to-read list.
Recently, I read J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (the book that begins Norton’s series), which is recounts one month in the summer of the 1920s. Tom Birkin, a WWI vet, who is now an art conservator, goes to a medieval church in Yorkshire to restore its murals. In that summer month, he manages to fall in love with the town and its exceedingly genuine characters, including the vicar’s wife.
Birkin, however, is a troubled character. He is still suffering from the PTSD induced by the atrocities of the battlefields and the recent developments of his wife, a woman he is not sure he likes, running off with another man. But his problems are not at the forefront of the novel; they merely clothe him in a mysterious air, making him all the more fascinating to the locals. He is truly the stoic Englishman, not willing to discuss his problems with the people he becomes friends with nor his readers. They are simply facts, some of which may or may not have future developments. He is a far cry from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, who at every turn needs the reader to validate his emotions.
Instead, we find Birkin in his work, and the descriptions of the medieval mural are what drive the novel. With each figure that is uncovered from the soot and dirt, the novel reveals something new. But it moves at a slow idyllic pace, just like the summer around Birkin. It is truly a month in the country, one that Birkin knows now, recounting from the future, can only happen once. And what is better than to read this kind of novel in the summer, creating your own once in a lifetime moment?
J.L. Carr wrote this novel in the 1980s, wishing to capture a time in English history that was still alive in some people’s memories, but quickly fading to the past. He modelled it after Thomas Hardy’s only novel with a happy ending, Under the Greenwood Tree, which also attempts to recreate lost English pastoralism. Carr keeps reminding us readers that we live in a different world, one where his characters’ choices and opinions are foreign, and that we can only glimpse, but never really partake in that summer Birkin so fondly recalls.
I’m looking forward to reading some more J.L. Carr novels. According to Michael Holyroyd’s introduction in the NY Review of Books edition, Carr led quite the interesting life as a schoolmaster and a writer, but was ultimately famous for the illustrated maps he made of the English countryside.