Stanford’s Another Look book club reborn with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

Another Look book club takes on J.L. Carr’s 1980 masterpiece, ‘A Month in the Country,’ under the new leadership of author Robert Pogue Harrison.


Carr by a quince tree. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.

One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.

From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.

The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)

Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.

For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

Read the whole article here.

“Splendid in their day – but not now.”

St. Lawrence Church in Broughton, Buckinghamshire – still splendid, in its way.

“Of course, you know this is going to make a stir when the word gets around?” he said. I nodded. “Is there anything anywhere else like it? In the same league?” No, I told him, there wasn’t. Once, yes. But no longer. Croughton, Stoke Orchard, St. Albans, Great Harrowden – they’d all been splendid in their day. But not now.”

Walk into an old village church in England today, and you are likely to be impressed by the austere serenity of limewashed white walls and sunlight streaming onto dark wooden pews.

The Weighing of Souls at Croughton.

This is not the vision our medieval forebears would have seen. In those earlier centuries, the walls were heavily decorated with painted images of heaven, hell, morality tales, and the lives of saints. Devils, angels, and a host of others competed for the churchgoers’ attention, amid ornate textiles, sculpted effigies on tombs, and stained glass.

A Month in the Country describes the labors of Tom Birkin to restore a fourteenth century wall painting of “The Last Judgment.” But he was hardly the only one to climb a ladder and tentatively chip away at layers of limewash. This aspect of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is no fiction.

Take the recent celebration at St. Cadoc’s in Llancarfan, Wales (read about it here), a church founded around 1200 on the site of a seventh century monastery. The discovery of a thin red line at the top of a wall led to a team of experts visiting the church with discoveries and recommendations. Painstaking restoration in the last few years has revealed an stunning series of late fifteenth century paintings, including large and spectacular tableaux of St. George and the Dragon, as well as bold images of the seven deadly sins, a macabre death figure with worms and toads, and the family arms of some of the families who paid for the elaborate paintings. Continue reading

From Another Look’s new director, Robert Pogue Harrison

When I attended the last meeting of Another Look this past spring, I knew that no one had offered to take over for Tobias. Seeing the crush of people at Levinthal Hall fifteen minutes before starting time, with standing room only, eager to hear a discussion of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, I realized how much this book series means to people at Stanford and in the surrounding community. I felt it would be a real shame to let it let it die, so I offered to take over the directorship from Tobias.  We worked things out with Continuing Studies, which has generously agreed to sponsor the series’ continuation – and here we are, ready to go.
I read A Month in the Country about ten years ago and was enchanted by its style, landscapes, and themes. If any book fits the bill of Another Look – namely, a short novel from the past that richly deserves another look – it is Carr’s gem of a narrative, which takes on all sorts of different sorts of hues, depending on how you view it.

J.L. Carr: “He was my Dad, he wasn’t exceptional to me.”

Bob Carr with his parents in South Dakota, 1957.  (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

When Another Look undertakes a book event, we contact publishers, estates, and the stacks of Green Library to find out about the author and his work. We humbly sent up a white flag in the case of author J.L. “Jim” Carr, however. Aside from A Month in the Country, Green Library had a single book – the excellent Byron Rogers biography, The Last Englishman: The Life of J.L. Carr. We made the best of it.

After a little persistent nudging, we finally managed to reach his son Bob Carr via Quince Tree Press, the publishing house his father started and he now directs. He was pleased with the Stanford effort, and said so. His reply was charming and affable, and he sent us three photos to use in our publicity – two of them hadn’t been published before, to my best knowledge. But our offers for an interview were politely overlooked. Why?

Apparently the biographer had the same problem. From the book the last few pages of Byron Rogers’s The Last Englishman:

Carr was not an open man, neither was Bob, so theirs had been a perfectly friendly relationship with few confidences exchanged but no confrontations either. The result is that when you ask Bob Carr questions about his father, you sometimes feel you might just as well as be asking them of the lodger. Now nearing retirement as an archaeologist with Suffolk County Council, he is, as you will have gathered, not unaware of the humour of the situation. Asking Bob Carr questions provided the funniest, and most baffling, moments in this book.

Jim, he said, had in one of his rare confidences told Bob that he had tried to bring him up the way his own father had brought him up. That is that Joseph, a dour man, who when his son fell off his bicycle would himself cycle imperturbably on. The two had talked little.

“Looking back our relationship does seem unusual,” said Bob Carr, “but at the time I had nothing to compare it with. I must have been a poor child for my parents. I developed independence at an early age, so I didn’t go to them for approval. I did what I wanted to do, Dad did what he wanted to do. I remember that at one point he turned all the decorating of the house over to me. Bit daunting that at seventeen. Continue reading

“Hell? Passchendaele had been hell.”

Canadian soldiers survey a destroyed German bunker, November 1917.

Now that was a thought! Hell? Passchendaele had been hell. Bodies split, heads blown off, groveling fear, shrieking fear, unspeakable fear! The world made mud! But I knew it was Bible hell she had in mind, hell that went on and on, an aching timeless hell. … We sloughed off the pals who’d gone down into death. While it was day that is. At night, in the dark, for a time they came back but we wanted no part of what they now were: theirs was another world—hell, if you care to call it that.

The dead and wounded…

It was famous not only for the scale of its casualties, but for the mud.

Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the conflict, which began July 31, 1917, and ended on November 6, eventually left more than 600,000 casualties on both sides. Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, had long mulled the idea of launching a major offensive in Flanders, but he could not have anticipated the record rainfall, which liquefied the battlefield. The land soon became cratered, like the moon.

The drive for the tiny, already burnt-out Belgian village, which would offer little in the way of a prized capture, had already annihilated entire divisions of exhausted Britons, Australians, and New Zealanders. Morale plummeted as troops watched their comrades fall into giant craters in the earth and drown in the muddy water. It was the low point for the Allies, the strategy clouded in controversy, and its legacy one of futile death.

The use of mustard gas added a new horror to war, one that could incapacitate victims en masse. The Germans used it for the first time at Passchendaele. One nurse, Vera Brittain, wrote in her 1933 autobiography, Testament of Youth: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” The trauma of gas was at least as great as shell shock. The fear of it overwhelmed the soldiers with dread.

Tom Birken and Charlie Moon often refer to Passchendaele quickly, furtively, as something not to be spoken of, a word to be dropped quickly and then move on. Or else the conversations happen “offstage”; Carr was perhaps unwilling to describe the carnage, which even photographs fail to capture. The battle, a counterpoint to the peace of Yorkshire, is more powerful for what remains unsaid.

Cratered, like the moon…

“I cannot attempt to describe the conditions under which we are fighting,” wrote soldier John Mortimer Wheeler, later a well-known archaeologist. “Anything I could write about them would seem an exaggeration but would, in reality, be miles below the truth. … The mud is not so much mud as a fathomless, sticky morass. The shell holes, where they do not actually merge into one another, are divided only by a few inches of this glutinous mud…. The gunners work thigh-deep in water.” Some British artillery pieces dug themselves so deeply into the mud with their recoils that they dropped below the surface; the crew would then put up a flag to mark the spot.” Continue reading

Penelope Fitzgerald, J.L. Carr, and the “death of the spirit we must fear.”

When Booker prize-winning poet, essayist, and novelist Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country, she cited Carr’s epigraph from The Harpole Report: “It is the death of the spirit we must fear.”

Then she explains what might be considered the unconventional author’s credo: “The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.”

It’s hard to imagine an author of more independent mind than Carr. Part of that stubbornness, certainly, was the refusal to bow to the passage of time – as evident is his fight to save St. Faith church in Yorkshire (read about that effort here). That was in life, but in his writing?  The magic is in how he turns time to his own fashioning. Fitzgerald writes:

‘And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job. Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather – gone as though they’d never been.’ Early in the book the perspective of time is established. Birkin is looking back, with wonder, at the very last years of a lamplit, horse-drawn age. Of course, he and Moon have another set of memories to haunt them, from Passchendaele. But Birkin believes that the future is opening up. ‘Well, I was young then.’

Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past. Birkin notices, as he walks back down the road, how he first smelled, then saw, the swathes of hay lying in the dusk. At the Sunday school outing, ‘Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants, and astonished their children by larking around like great lads.’ Those tapes! Who would have remembered them except Jim Carr?

From the first Birkin has seen that the wall-painting is a Doom, a Christ in Judgement with its saved and its sinners in a great spread of reds and blues. He finishes the restoration according to contract, just as the first breath of autumn comes to Oxgodby. But the moment when the year crosses into another season becomes indistinguishable from his passion, making itself clear as it does quite suddenly, for Alice Keach.

‘All this happened so long ago.’ The tone of A Month in the Country, however, isn’t one of straightforward remembering or (if there can be such a thing) of straightforward nostalgia, or even an acute sense of the loss of youth. More complex is his state of mind when he thinks of the people – perhaps only a few – who will visit Oxgodby church in its meadows and regret that they missed seeing the master painter himself – ‘as one might come to Malvern, bland Malvern, and think that Edward Elgar walked this way to give music lessons’. This is a nostalgia for something we have never had, ‘a precious tugging of the heart – knowing a precious moment gone and we not there’. But even this has to be distinguished from downright pain. ‘We can ask and ask, but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever.’ You can only wait, Carr says, for the pain to pass, but what is it that once seemed ours for ever? Or is this, like the Shropshire Lad’s, an unanswerable question?

Read the whole introduction here.

“Apples are the only exam I could ever hope to pass.”

We talked about apples. It seemed that her father had been a great apple man. In Hampshire, they’d had a fair-sized orchard planted with a wide variety and he’d brought her up to discriminate between them. “Before he pit into one, he’d sniff it, roll it around his cupped palms, then smell his hands. Then he’d tap it and finger it like a blind man. Sometimes he made me close my eyes and, when I’d had a bite, ask me to say which apple.”

J.L. Carr would have been aware of the invasion of foreign apples, which was beginning about the time he wrote A Month in the Country. The familiar English varieties that were seasonal were steadily giving way to year-round commercial brands. Alice Keach’s speech is an ode to the traditional English apple, a cause no doubt dear to the author who has been called “the last Englishman.”

Tom Birkin mentions an “obvious” British apple, Cox’s Orange. This particular orange reigned as the premier dessert apple of England for almost two centuries, from the time when Richard Cox, a retired brewer who moved to the Berkshire countryside, pollinated two seeds from a Ribston Pippin and a Blenheim Orange apple.

Alice Keach was right when she said the Orange Cox was an easy apple to distinguish – even a blind man with a bad cold could do it, for the apple’s seeds are loose and and rattle within the core when you shake the apple. One enthusiast described it as ““a variety for the connoisseur, who can delight in the appreciation of the remarkable range of subtle flavors — pear, melon, freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice, and mango are all evident in a good example.” These apples are described like fine wines.

One English journalist, discussing the Cox Orange, decried the invasion of foreign apples this way:

But now, 184 years later, the empress of all apples is under threat of being ousted from her throne by vulgar – and literally more tasteless – rivals such as Gala, Jazz and Braeburn. Year-round sales of Gala have – I can hardly bring myself to write this – already overtaken the Cox, and UK production is following the same sorry trend.

One reason – wouldn’t you know, in our instant, takeaway society – is that these impostors look better, rather as Paris Hilton looks better than, say, Grace Kelly. The true Cox can be unevenly sized and slightly dusty-looking. Apparently, with apples, as with life, appearance is now all.

Apple-eaters are being seduced by the shiny red skins of foreign rivals. Not long ago I was appalled by the sight of those even more vulgar arrivistes, Pink Ladies, being sold in our local supermarket in a free fluorescent Barbie-pink plastic holdall. Continue reading

Why Sara van Fleet and Wensleydale?

That rose, Sara van Fleet … I still have it. Pressed in a book. My Bannister-Fletcher, as a matter of fact. Someday, after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.

As Alice Keach said to Tom Birkin, “Sara van Fleet isn’t any old rose” – but why did J.L. Carr pluck this particular flower for his heroine?

Sara van Fleet is of the rugosa variety – that makes it one of the oldest and hardiest roses still in existence. A drawing by Chao Ch’ang, active around 1,000 A.D., features one. They were brought to Europe from Asia in 1784.

More importantly for literary purposes, it is one of the most richly scented roses. One specialist praised it as having “a contralto scent in contrast with the Tea’s soprano.” That means its linger with Tom Birkin in more than memory.

Along with the China Rose, it is pretty much alone in producing flowers from May to October. Alice Keach told us so:

“Sara van Fleet,” she said. It was a pink rose, a single. “It’s an old variety. Mind! It has sharp thorns. And it keeps on blooming. You’ll see  – there’ll be some right into autumn.” She smiled. “Even if you don’t visit us again, you’ll know – I usually wear one in my hat … Here, take one.”


Tom Birkin is quite specific about his eating habits: “I was going to be happy, live simply, spend as little as paraffin, bread, vegetables and a bit of bully-beef now and then might cost me. I could have managed on a couple pints of milk a week, but this weather it wouldn’t keep so I should have to have three: oatmeal porridge is very sustaining and needs only warming to make a second meal.” Bully-beef is a kind of corned beef, and it’s useful to remember that this was the time before refrigeration and, for most rural housing, before indoor plumbing. “Each day still began much alike. I brewed up, fried a couple of rashers and a round of bread…” Rashers are thin slices of bacon.

More than once, he tells us: “I usually cut two rough rounds of loaf and a wedge of Wensleydale and took it outside to eat.” But what is Wensleydale? The choice of this white, crumbly cheese gives us some notion of where the fictional Oxgodby is situated – for the cheese would not traveled more than a few miles from the small village of Wensleydale, situated in the upper valley of the River Ure in North Yorkshire. The cheese was first made by medieval Cistercian monks from France – and so has an unusual harmony with the work that occupied Tom Birkin by day. In Yorkshire, one has Wensleydale with apple pie in the summer, with Christmas cakes in the winter.

But the porridge and bully-beef, the antique roses and a well-known cheese associated with Yorkshire, make a bigger point: this is an England that was disappearing by time Carr published his book in the 1980. Carr conjures these disappearing  markers of British life, preserving them in the perfect world of 1920s Yorkshire he recreates for A Month in the Country. 

“Thoo’s ga-ing ti git rare an’ soaaked reet doon ti thi skin, maister.”

The renowned Yorkshire dialect is almost as exotic to a Londoner as it is to those on this side of the Atlantic. Hence Tom Birken’s puzzled reaction to his fellow passenger’s warning on the train that marked his entry into Oxgodby: “Thoo’s ga-ing ti git rare an’ soaaked reet doon ti thi skin, maister.”

Where did this fascinating dialect come from? We offer the 9-minute film clip below, tracing the origins of the language in the linguistic wrestling between the Anglo-Saxons and the Viking settlers under the ancient Danelaw, a term which designated the lands under the jurisdiction of the Norse invaders. According to linguists, the compromises that resulted created the English we speak today. Yorkshire villages like Oxgodby were the go-to places for language oh, say about a thousand years ago.

Can’t get enough? Below the video clip we offer two soundtracks of the Yorkshire accent from the British Library – in the first, a man describes his Yorkshire childhood in the 1920s, describing a world very much like Oxgodby.

1) Welwick, Yorkshire: Miss Dibnah explains how to make white bread, brown bread and spice bread. Read a transcript of this recording on the British Library’s ‘Sounds Familiar’ website. Link here.

2) Appleton Roebuck, North Yorkshire: Sydney talks about growing up in the 1920s with six siblings in a small, three-bedroomed house in Appleton Roebuck. Link here.

What the reviews said, then and now…

“This was the book nobody rejected, because they did not get the chance,” wrote biographer Byron Rogers of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. That’s not quite true. There were a few reviews of Carr’s book when it was first published, even before it was short-listed for the Booker Prize and received the Guardian Prize for fiction.

Still, the tone for the early reviews before the awards were announced, and the tone now, decades later, is markedly different. See if you agree.

Reviews in 1980:

“There is a strong temptation to call this an idyll, and the temptation need not be resisted, for so it is, in the true sense of the word. But this should not suggest any sort of cloudly poeticism. The writing is energetically colloquial, well-salted with specific detail. Totally unsentimental, but although so clearly observed, it is all seen from a distance. Half a lifetime has passed since 1920, and the brief episode is preserved undimmed and unaltered, needing no other pathos than that of the past. Slight but beautifully done, this book has a quality of its own that will not be easily forgotten.”

Graham Hough, London Review of Books

“It is short; it is odd; it is memorable; it is admirable.”

Marghanita Laski, Country Life

“One of the joys of August, when few novels are normally published, is to catch up with anything which has fallen through the net. J.L. Carr’s new novel is something which nobody should miss whose roots really belong to the English countryside. Mr. Carr’s is a beautiful tale, and, at any rate so far as this reviewer is concerned, a profoundly affecting one.”

Auberon Waugh, London Evening

Reviews since 2000:

Slim as it is, this is a tender and elegant novel that seemingly effortlessly weaves several strands together. Carr has a knack for bringing certain scenes into sudden, sharp focus, rather as waves lift forgotten things to the surface. He writes with particular precision and admiration about the joys of skilled men going about their business. He also subtly evokes lost rural customs and ways of living that, even at the time, had begun to fade from view: cart rides and seed cake and honey-thick accents that had not yet been filed down by mass communication.

The sense of things lost to time is pronounced but not overplayed and there’s a gently elegiac quality to the developing picture of a warm and hazy English countryside summer. This pleasant vision is countered by his rawer and more acute account of the deep mark left on a man when a chance of happiness is glimpsed and missed and left to settle in the memory.

Natasha Tripney, The Guardian, 2010

Happiness is a rare subject. Pain, disillusionment, and misfortune are well documented. Great novels turn on betrayals and confrontations: adulteries and wars; tragic misunderstandings and sudden upheavals of the heart. Plot is driven by conflict (or so the chorus goes). Revelations propel narratives.

Happiness, on the other hand, is trickier. Happiness is static, rarely dramatic. Instead of sudden twists of action and circumstance, it yields subtleties. Contentment builds slowly and steadily build; joy emerges fully-formed from a beautiful collision of time and place. Wonderful in life but, in a book, usually the conclusion of a drama or foregrounding for a tragedy; rarely the foreground.  …

The happiness depicted in A Month in the Country is wise and wary, aware of its temporality. When he arrives in Oxgodby, Birkin knows very well life is not all ease and intimacy, long summer days with “winter always loitering around the corner.” He has experienced emotional cruelty in his failed marriage. As a soldier, he witnessed death: destruction and unending mud.

But the edges are brighter for it. Birkin’s idyll in the country is brought into relief by what Birkin has gone through in the past and the disappointments that, it is implied, await him. Carr’s great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it. In a world where the most vivid heavens and hells are of our creation, Carr suggests, paradise and purgatory are deeply personal. What we value most in life, then, may also be the most difficult to share. After all, though the tacit love between Birkin and Alice is one of the most beautiful and memorable aspects of the book, it really amounts to little: the layers of affinity and implication that grow in their conversations, a blush flaming Alice’s pale cheeks, her vanishing laughter which sounds, “like…well, like a bell.”

Ingrid Norton, Open Letters Monthly