The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.
One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals, and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.
From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.
The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)
Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.
For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.
“When I attended the last meeting of Another Look this past spring, I knew that no one had offered to take over for Tobias,” said Harrison. “Seeing the crush of people at Levinthal Hall fifteen minutes before starting time, with standing room only, eager to hear a discussion of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, I realized how much this book series means to people at Stanford and in the surrounding community. I felt it would be a real shame to let it let it die, so I offered to take over the directorship. And here we are, ready to go.”
Carr’s pitch-perfect short novel earned a Guardian Fiction Prize and was short-listed for a prestigious Booker Prize when it was published. The book’s fame was briefly outstripped by the 1987 film version, which effectively marked the film debuts of Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and Natasha Richardson. The highly praised film was neglected after its release and finally rescued from oblivion by determined fans in recent years. The book, however, has a brisker pace, a quiet wit, a charm of its own – and a more enduring life.
“I read A Month in the Country about 10 years ago and was enchanted by its style, landscapes and themes,” said Harrison. “If any book fits the bill of Another Look – namely, a short novel from the past that richly deserves another look – it is Carr’s gem of a narrative, which takes on all sorts of different sorts of hues, depending on how you view it.”
Carr was the son of a Yorkshire stationmaster who was also a Wesleyan lay preacher. He eventually moved to Northamptonshire, where he was a teacher and schoolmaster for decades. He had a reputation for eccentricity: on school sports days, for example, he would set up Arithmetic Races where students had to complete sums at trackside blackboards before running on.
He decided to chuck it and become a writer. His first novel was published when he was in his 50s. To make ends meet, he founded Quince Tree Press, a publishing house that offered hand-illustrated county maps, idiosyncratic dictionaries and small, 5″ X 3.5″ editions of great poets, for less than the cost of a greeting card. It published the works of J.L. Carr as well – and still does.
But it was hard for Carr to build a literary reputation when each of his books was entirely different, in style, subject and outlook. The Harpole Report, for example, is a novel mostly in the form of a teacher’s log; the comedy writer Frank Muir called it “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read.” As a result, Carr had a cult following, but no mainstream success until A Month in the Country.
Fame didn’t change him. He remained in Kettering, Northamptonshire, publishing books at Quince Tree Press, which is now headed by his son, Bob Carr. The author died in 1994 of leukemia, at age 81.
His biographer Byron Rogers described his visit to Carr’s deathbed as “uneasy bonhomie on my part, and silence and watchfulness on his.” Then he adds, “Though the irony is that most conversations with Jim Carr had been like that.”
The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the websiteanotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The website also has additional articles about J.L. Carr and other information on the Oct. 19 discussion.