Monday, December 19, 2011

J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country: The Buberian Dilemma

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980; repr. NY: New York Review Book, 2000):

I never exchanged a word with the Colonel.  He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby.  As far as I'm concerned he might just as well have gone around the corner and died.  But that goes for most of us, doesn't it?  We look blankly at each other.  Here I am, here you are.  What are we doing here?  What do you suppose it's all about?  Let's dream on.  Yes, that's my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top.  My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece.  That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on.  I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty.  When I retired they'll give me a clock--with my name engraved on the back.  Now you know all about me.  Go away: I've forgotten you already (p. 31).

Unrequited longing, unrequited longing for authentic human encounter: that's the dominant theme of Carr's bittersweet account of a month a World War I veteran spends in the Yorkshire countryside.   Tom Birkin is restoring a mural of the Last Judgment in the village church, which has long since been painted over, covered with the soot of centuries of candle smoke and deliberately obscured by pastors of the church who found the mural's vivid depiction of the final sorting too lurid for their more chastened Anglican taste.  

As he works, he realizes he begins intimately to know the unknown painter of the mural.  He really knows him.  He can divine what the mural maker thought and why he made the choices he did, as he limned and painted the mural in precisely this way.

But Tom also recognizes that he will never know the man who made this mural--not in any definitive way.  Because the two men live in different historical eras and will always be separated by the insurmountable obstacle of time.

He longs for intimate connection to the wife of the church's vicar, the two exchange significant conversation and a furtive kiss.  And then she and her mysterious husband--who remains equally unknowable--leave the village in the night and are not seen again.

Tom spends time every day with another veteran of the war, Moon, who's engaged in an archeological dig outside the churchyard.  They share tea morning and evening, a pint some nights in the village pub.  But each finds it impossible to talk about the experiences of the war that has scarred both decisively, and when Tom learns from a comrade of Moon's that, though he was a hero who risked his life to save that of fellow soldiers, Moon left the army in disgrace after it was discovered he was homosexual, Tom finds it impossible after that to bridge the gap between himself and Moon.

The sense of impossible longing for intimacy--of longing for impossible intimacy--on which the novel's thin but ineluctably powerful plot turns, a sense perfectly encapsulated in the piece I've excerpted above, will inevitably evoke Eliot and "Prufrock" for many readers.  But I think, too, of Buber, and his recognition that we go through the procession of our days, the vast majority of us, bumping against each other as objects, seldom seeing who is actually there in front of our eyes.

Incapable of moving from it to Thou.  And perhaps most of all, in our own relationship with our own inmost selves . . . . 

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