Authors David Lodge, J. L. Carr and Olivia Manning

Oldies made the best holiday companions

A trio of 20th century novels each offer a different desideratum for the discerning lounger


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On the penetrating question of what fiction to take on holiday, this year The Critic offers a novel approach. Why heft around the Dolomites the bulk of an untested hardback, by a wet-behind-the-ears author who isn’t even dead yet, when you can halve the weight and double the probability of a good time by bringing an older book that thousands of satisfied holiday-makers have test-driven before you? This season, then, we recommend a trio of 20th century novels, each of which offers a different desideratum for the discerning lounger.

A Month in the Country, J. L. Carr (Penguin Modern Classics, £7.99)

We begin with what might be a perfect summer novel, thanks to a combination of its brevity, its theme of nostalgic yearning and its August-countryside setting. Indeed, there’s a case to be made for J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country to be considered a sort of literary universal solvent: a mention of it in bookish circles finds only enthusiasm bordering on rapture.

Carr was, in terms, a singular cove. His early paperbacks describe him as “a Kettering publisher of standard poets, idiosyncratic maps and unlikely dictionaries”. His biography was titled The Last Englishman, and he had, in the words of D.J. Taylor of this parish, a “highly enigmatic personality and [a] faint air of concealment that hung over nearly every aspect of his life”.

A Month in the Country is uncharacteristic among his works, which is to say the least eccentric and least comic — and that may explain why it is also his most popular novel. The setting is the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby in August 1920, a hot summer month of “Tennyson weather — drowsy, warm, unnaturally still”. Or rather, the setting is now, as the narrator writes down his memories of Oxgodby — but we see nothing of the present day, which cannot compare with that month in the country.

Our man is Tom Birkin, a then-twenty-something restorer of mediaeval murals, hired by a sceptical vicar to uncover a 500-year-old wall painting. Tom is fresh from the Western Front, with tic and stammer to show for it. The work may have restorative properties, or as one character puts it: “Are you here to try to crawl back into the skin you had before they pushed you through the mincer?”

And so he sets about “cleaning down the years to the painting itself”. It’s slow work, giving Tom time to meet the villagers; all are friendlier than the vicar, and feed into his slow seduction by Oxgodby, and the first flarings of an impossible belief that he might make a new life there. We know he did not, precisely because the yearning he feels is a function of his separation from it. “I’m not the marvelling kind. Or was I then?”

Remember laughter? It was popular in the last century

Tom also gets to know the man behind the painting he is uncovering (a composition of souls bound for heaven and hell). And although the 15th century artist is anonymous by definition — “People don’t seem to understand those far-off folk. Our idea of personal fame was unknown to them” — Tom is surprised by what he, in all senses, uncovers.

The delicious pain of nostalgia is at the heart of A Month in the Country, surrounded by love, regret, “things you cannot talk of yet can’t forget” and a particular kind of Englishness. It is this last which is explicitly signposted in the closing pages, with references to Elgar and to the “land of lost content” of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (Carr’s favourite poem). So this is not a subtle book in every respect — the uncovering of the painting is a clear metaphor for the search for lost time — but it is no less effective for that. Indeed, the inevitability of what it delivers may even heighten the experience.

Another quality we may seek from our holiday reading is a bit of comedy. Remember laughter? It was popular in the last century, and among its most celebrated literary practitioners was David Lodge. His Campus Trilogy, probably his most enduring work, opened with Changing Places, which was published in 1975 but set in 1969. (Already I hear the coffin-creak of enhanced awareness as I reflect that a book I think of as fairly contemporary was published half a century ago.)

Changing Places, David Lodge (Vintage, £9.99)

Indeed, with comic fiction, ageing is a key factor. What was fresh and fruity a few short decades ago can seem desiccated. The problem with comedy is that when it fails, it becomes not a pale version of itself but its own opposite, a straight-mouthed, hot-cheeked embarrassment. The key to its half-life is how the humour is balanced between subject matter and style. 

With Changing Places, the balance is well maintained. Its overall themes of culture clash and sexual betrayal are evergreen, and the comic drive comes more often from Lodge’s expression of the scenes than the scenes themselves. The strokes are necessarily broad: our heroes are two university professors: the ambitious, go-getting American Maurice Zapp from Euphoria State University — who wants to write the comprehensive critical texts on Jane Austen, less “to honour the novelist herself, but to put a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject”; and the Englishman Philip Swallow, “a man scarcely known outside his own Department” at Rummidge University (loosely inspired by Birmingham, where Lodge studied and taught).

Zapp and Swallow are on an exchange programme. As the book opens they are simultaneously “crossing over the polar skies at the same indeterminate (for everyone’s watch is wrong by now) hour” en route to one another’s homes. 

The story is reported by an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, who sees through the men’s eyes but also looks down sceptically on them, though it’s hard to tell the satire from the sincerity in details such as each man looking forward to getting rid of his wife for six months (the feeling seems to be mutual), or Zapp’s consideration of the likelihood of his “getting into the girdle of the hostess giving the demonstration”. (The age is established as much by the use of “girdle” as by the sentiment.)

There follows a long stretch of good-natured, refreshingly non-earnest cross-purposes comedy, predominantly focused on campus politics and sexual licence. (Each man, inevitably, ends up in bed with the other’s wife.) Some of the details show their age but are still funny: Zapp is chastised after being caught reading Playboy, to which he protests to his colleague: “Playboy isn’t pornography, for heaven’s sake! Why, clergymen read it. Clergymen write for it!” “Protestant clergymen, perhaps,” comes the reply.

The book’s pre-Roe v Wade world looks like our post-Roe one

But elsewhere, it’s plus ça change, as the book’s pre-Roe v Wade world (Zapp discovers that everyone else on his plane is a pregnant woman travelling to England for an abortion) looks like our post-Roe one. Similarly, there are plenty of lines that could have been written yesterday, like the one from an academic desperate to increase the department’s diversity (“What I wouldn’t give for an indigenous Indian with a PhD”) or another on the insularity of his students: “lazy, pretentious bastards who thought they could write the Great American Novel by just typing out their confessions and changing the names”.

Lodge attempts to keep things lively by switching around the forms of the narrative, some of which work (letters between the spouses) and some of which don’t (newspaper cuttings). But the book ends on a high, with a screenplay-styled conclusion, which manages to be funny, thoughtful and playful at the same time.

What more could you want from your summer reading? Something immersive perhaps, to lose yourself in for a fortnight? I prescribe Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first book in her Balkan trilogy, set in Romania during the first year of the second world war. The central characters are newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle — he a clubbable teacher, she a cool cynic whose personality was formed by being abandoned by her parents and raised by an aunt. 

The Great Fortune, Olivia Manning (Windmill, £9.99)

About the plot one could say much, but it kicks off with the assassination of Romanian prime minister Armand Calinescu and sets its tone from that, blending wider geopolitical events with the disrupted plans of our English expats, rendering the quarrel between society and individualism in human form. This is lavish fiction: a world where “one eats for the pleasure of drinking” and where a face can be “ravaged not from age but from unrelenting vivacity”. 

Manning achieves her effects by layering detail as generously as the Romanians put on a spread of food for their guests. Characters come thick and fast, too, and inevitably it’s a secondary character — the journalist Yakimov — who steals most of the scenes, with his feckless money worries and his attitude that “a problem that did not have to be faced straight away was no problem to him”.

It was this fullness of style that led her friend — acquaintance — Ivy Compton-Burnett to observe of one of Manning’s novels: “It really is full of very good descriptions. Quite excellent descriptions. I don’t know if you care for descriptions? I don’t.” 

But it’s these quite excellent descriptions that allow the reader to fall into Guy and Harriet’s world so gratefully, and to be thankful that there are not just another two novels to come in the trilogy, but a whole further series — The Levant Trilogy — after that. Never was a book so perfectly executed to meet the injunction: now read on.

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