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Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (Penguin, 1973) [1930]

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country (Harvester Press, 1980)

‘My private schoolmaster used to say, “If a thing’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well.” My Church has taught that in different words for several centuries. But these young people have got hold of another end of the stick, and for all we know it may be the right one. They say, “If a thing’s not worth doing well, it’s not worth doing at all.” It makes everything very difficult for them.’

I’ve subscribed to something very similar to this for a very long time, which I think informs many positions I take with respect to the place and value of work in society, communism, and librarianship. Nothing frustrates me more than “make work” or the implementation of someone else’s decision when I can’t make out the goal, design, or purpose of the work itself. In a way, both Vile Bodies and A Month in the Country are books about work, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The Bright Young Things of Waugh’s novel are the children of the (very slowly) declining aristocracy and upper middle-class. Things have changed from, say, the bourgeoisie of Pride and Prejudice for whom work is complete mystery. The Bright Young Things are living off their parents’ debt and accruing debt of their own, and the breakneck speed and disjointed rhythm of the novel suggests that crisis is just around the corner. Indeed, the counterfactual war which breaks out at the end of the novel is justified by the very real fact of war as a means to defuse crisis under capitalism. Waugh isn’t someone I would ordinarily ascribe such perspicacity to - and it’s as likely due to his misanthropy as to any economic insight - but the coming of the second world war nine years later certainly bears out Waugh’s point.

It took me a long time to like Waugh, though my dad was always reading him. I felt Waugh’s comedy was shallower or less important than, say, Greene’s heavy novels. I finally grasped the depth of Waugh’s savagery when I read A Handful of Dust in library school - I still haven’t mustered up the courage to re-read that one. Brideshead is, I think, clearly his best, but the satire has been dulled and something akin to a warm nostalgia suffuses that book, even as he occasionally skewers its subjects. Vile Bodies is a good book to read, as Melville writes in Moby Dick,

whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.

Judging by conversations I’ve had with many people recently, a lot of us are feeling this way at the moment; Waugh’s comedy is a better restorative than Greene’s tragedies, no matter what my nineteen-year-old self would have argued.

The connection to work is much clearer in A Month in the Country than in Vile Bodies. I decided to read this after stumbling upon the film version on YouTube on the weekend (which stars a very young Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson). It’s one of those very English things which makes a liar of every high school English teacher who insists that every story must have a conflict.

Tom Birkin, still recovering from his experience of the first world war (and Passchendaele in particular), has been contracted uncover a medieval wall painting in a Yorkshire church. He spends the summer of 1920 sleeping in the belfry, working on the restoration, and making friends with the locals, including the rector’s wife Alice Keach, and Charles Moon, another demobbed soldier with a job of his own to do. The novel is about the restorative capacity of a simple life in the country, good weather, friendship and, most importantly, of unalienated labour. Like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, A Month in the Country falls into a subgenre we might as well call “salvation by work”. Some of Birkin’s impressions have to do with the meaning of professionalism - a much different “professionalism” from either Austen or Waugh:

You know how it is when a tricky job is going well becuase you’re doing things the way they should be done, when you’re working in rhythm and feel a reassuring confidence that everything’s unravelling naturally and all will be right in the end. That’s about it: I knew what I was doing - it’s really what being professional means.

(Note: “being professional” rather than “being a professional). Compare this passage to what Ivan Denisovich experiences building a wall in Solzhenitsyn’s novella.

I don’t think I would argue that A Month in the Country is any kind of first-rate literary artefact, but it’s competently - professionally - done, and it has a charm that really fits with the dead, grey end of the year when we all feel like stepping into the street and knocking people’s hats off. And it has ambition, I think, of a quiet kind. If a thing’s not worth doing well, it’s not worth doing at all.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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