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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Thanks to Sir William for two new knees and a novel I loved…

Months ago, I received a book in the mail from an orthopedic in Richmond. He and I share a love of literature, though I had not heard of the novel he sent me… A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr.

I quickly noticed a testimonial on the book’s back cover by Penelope Fitzgerald, a British writer that Sir William began to read after his literary exploration of Julian Barnes. (On pages 162 & 163 in Tennis Talk of a Nobody are the books this fine surgeon read related to Julian). I know from two articles I’ve read, that Barnes deeply appreciated Penelope Fitzgerald.

Okay, but at the time I received A Month in the Country, I had a month of teaching and set the novel aside to read it later. Finally on Saturday, I did what I love best. I sat down and read the book from beginning to end. It’s only 135 pages! I finished reading and thought of A.Cort Sinnes in the Napa Valley. This artist & writer has been in my life since 1969 when he was a junior in high school and one of my students. Since 2019, Cort has designed five books for me.

In e-mail, I said I wanted to send him Carr’s short novel.

He replied: “How interesting. A Month in the Country is one of the few books I’ve read more than once…. I’d much appreciate a copy because I can’t find mine and it’s time to read it again.” Cort went on to share another connection. Recently, his “well-read attorney” gave him Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald.

Ah, conjunctions.

One is the character’s name in Carr’s novel, which is Birkin. I would wager that Carr had read Anton Chekhov’s story, “Gooseberries,” with its character, Birkin, the schoolteacher, who thinks everyone needs someone hammering on their hearts. In so many ways Carr’s short novel is Chekhovian. I also think he was influenced by Fitzgerald. And as she says, “Carr has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past.”

Which is what Tom Birkin does. A veteran of the first world war, he is a young man whose spirit and marriage are broken. He arrives in Oxgodby, a remote Yorkshire village, to restore a medieval painting in a local church. Each day as he uncovers more of the painting, he avoids taking in the whole until one early evening when the westering sun shines on the wall.

“It was breathtaking. (Anyway, it took my breath.) A tremendous waterfall of color, the blues of the apex falling, then seething into a turbulence of red; like all truly great works of art, hammering you with its whole before beguiling you with its parts.”

Art, tugging at the heart. I loved the novel and wanted to know more about the author. I read his obituary and realized a film had been made in 1987. On Saturday evening I watched A Month in the Country. Spectacular scenery and fine actors. Why did it not beguile like the novel? That’s next time.

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