A Day in Summer by J.L. Carr

Quite a few of us in the blogosphere are fans of J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A Month in the Country – that gentle tale of a man who goes to help restore a rural mural. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that rhyme.) But I don’t remember seeing reviews of any of his other novels – and had thought he might be rather a one-trick pony.

So, I was glad when my book group opted to read A Day in Summer (1963), Carr’s first novel – and evidence that he was fond of A [Time] in the [Situation] titles early on. But, except for similar titles, these novels have very little in common – except, that is, for quality. Both are very good.

A Day in Summer sounds a very halcyon title, but this is belied by the opening few pages. Peplow is on a train, coming into Great Minden. He has an imaginary conversation with his Manager; one of several in square brackets throughout the novel, from different characters’ perspectives, that give a very open access to their imaginations and projections:

[“I wonder if you’d mind very much if I take Friday off?””I suppose not. Is someone ill? Is it urgent?”No – well, it is and it isn’t. As a matter of fact I have to go off to a place in the country and shoot a man. Yes, that’s right, a man. They call it Great Minden. Perhaps you know it?””Really! Great Minden! I had an aunt living near there. If you wouldn’t consider it an impertinence, may I ask who – whom?””It’s the man who ran down my boy last summer. He’s with a fairground outfit, and on Friday he’ll be at the Fair there I understand. So it would be very convenient.””Naturally! Shall we see you again on Saturday? Monday?””Well, no. I’ve more or less decided it would be better for me to finish myself off too. In comfort, on the way back, all being well. It would by-pass the embarrassing formalities that usually follow. I’m sure you understand.”]
This isn’t precisely the tone that the rest of the novel takes – although it would be rather fascinating to read a whole narrative in this style. He isn’t really flippant about his action, and it is the thread that pulls the novel together, but Peplow isn’t really the leading character of A Day in Summer. And that is because, more than any other novel I can remember, this is an ensemble piece. Once Peplow arrives in Great Minden, the narrative flits from character to character, weaving their stories together so that the baton naturally passes from person to person.

There is a lascivious young schoolteacher who is having an affair with the vicar’s wife; the teacher is rightly terrified of the elderly spinster who runs the school with an iron fist. The vicar is desperate to hold his marriage together, but his wife despises him. There is a poor family with too many children, also with marital troubles; there is a dying man whose young son wonders why his mother left the family years ago. And, taking the cover on my book, is the man in a wheelchair, invalided by war, who happens to have been in action with Peplow.

There are, you see, too many characters to describe all that goes on; the plot is planned perfectly, and yet it feels less like a plot and more like observing villagers living their lives. Their unhappy lives, it should be said; misery is widespread, and marriages seem incapable of being content. Indeed, Peplow’s paternal grief seems perhaps less vivid than the teacher Croser’s sickness of being in a frustrating job, of the vicar’s pain.

Throughout, Carr’s tone is quite darkly witty, and I really loved it. Fans of A Month in the Country may find little to recognise, but this is by no means a weak first effort at novel-writing. Carr has a very impressive confidence even at this early stage, and handles a difficult tone and potentially unwieldy plot extremely well. Although A Month in the Country is a better book to curl up with for comfort, this is a stark, moving, and (yet) very amusing novel that is arguably equally good, in a very different way.

Reading Between The Covers

How much of a review is written before I read the book?
I wonder if that has you leaping for your lorgnettes, keen to inspect my words for heresy against the sacred code of yakking about books? Perhaps you are already deleting Stuck-in-a-Book from your links or your favourites, and rehearsing such lines as “Well, I always knew he was a bad ‘un; I only went to his website to watch the evidence accrue.”

Fear not, SiaB regulars. This isn’t a Middle English tutorial; I have read the books being discussed. I want to talk about a different type of paratextual mind-up-making (no ending on a preposition for me, one notes).

This started because I wanted to write about J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. I daresay I still will, if you’ll bear with me for a while. Carr’s novel was my not-so-Secret Santa present from work colleague, friend and hurdy-gurdy enthusiast Clare (along with Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent and the DVD of The Go-Between) and was duly read back in December. And, yes, I loved it. But I realised that I’d more or less loved it before the first sentence had been read… and for these reasons:

a) it was a present from a friend
b) the cover was beautiful – just look at it. One of my favourites
c) the title was also beautiful. Rurality was promised
Now, none of these would have helped the novel survive if it had been awful. But they all helped me along the analysis process – and I think this happens whenever we pick up a book. Even if said book is chosen arbitrarily from a secondhand shelf, we must be influenced by the design, the shop, the title, the author’s name (even if unknown) – all subtle but certain steps towards making what might be called an Uninformed Decision… personally, if I buy a book arbitrarily, without any prior knowledge of any constituent, then I am quietly determined to enjoy it. Serendipity must be heralded. “Oh, this,” must say I, “Just found by accident – and it’s wonderful!” Sometimes I’ll buy a book simply because I’ve liked the bookshop, and I want a souvenir of the visit. And I find it makes a huge difference, whether or not I start a book with the steely glint in my eye that refuses to be left unentertained.

So what qualified a book for privileged pre-treatment in my world?

a) a gift or a recommendation from a friend

b) found in a good bookshop, or chosen on a hopeful whim

c) design/cover

d) from 1900-1949

e) I should really be reading something else….

I’m not proud of these prejudices, and I don’t suggest that they should be in place, I merely suggest that they are. When I need to, I can turn them off – and that’s what I try to do for book reviews on here, and definitely do for the times I’ve written for (student) newspapers. But I’m sure I’m not the only one open to these foibles. They certainly don’t mean my mind can’t be changed, but they push it in a certain direction.

A Month in the Country proved to be heading in the right direction from the off. I experienced a certain Uninformed Decision setback when I discovered the book was from 1980, and thus not my period of ease, but this proved immaterial to my enjoyment of the short, largely-autobiographical novel. Tom Birkin arrives by train to a rural community in the north of England, hired by a reluctant Rev. Mr. Keach to uncover and restore a medieval mural on a church wall. Nearby, Charles Moon (like Tom, a war veteran) is digging for the grave of an ancestor of the church’s patroness. The process is slow, and the narrative winds along with Tom, exploring his relationships with the other villagers, and Moon, and a gentle passage of discovery. The most interesting scene is that when Tom visits the vicar and his amiable wife, Alice, only to discover their monstrous and secluded vicarage seems to alter both their personalities. Like the rest of the novel, this is shown subtly and calmly, but is a fascinating glimpse into one facet of the village, which could be explored much further. Even without all my preconceptions, this is one to look out for.