J. L. Carr was a primary school head in Kettering, Northamptonshire, who took early retirement from teaching so he could become a full-time writer, and who supported himself, his wife and his son in the meantime by setting up and running from his home a publishing house, the Quince Tree Press, which produced a series of ‘little books’, mainly selections of the great English poets, and county maps that Carr drew and illustrated himself.
Probably the most famous of the ‘little books’ – designed to fit into an envelope and light enough for an ordinary postage stamp – is Carr’s Dictionary of Extraordinary Cricketers. Carr wrote eight novels, one of which is, I am as certain as it is ever possible to be, a masterpiece. One cannot credit him with the amplitude which T. S. Eliot identified as one of the characteristics of greatness in a writer, because even that masterpiece – A Month in the Country – is very short, almost a novella, but it contains more of the fullness of life than most very long novels.
I suppose I should, these days, apologize for using phrases like ‘the fullness of life’; but, though I disagreed with many of his individual statements, I am, deep down, of that generation whose critical judgements were shaped by Dr Leavis. I still believe some books are better than others. I do still think the novel at its proper best is not just a game of words and forms, but has a profound moral purpose. I also think there are more important judgements of a writer’s value to civilization than the figures provided by the sales department of a publishing house.
J. L. Carr himself said, ‘I really don’t write for fun or money. Alas, there is a Message!’ And there is, in every book; it’s a message with a capital ‘M’ – and capitals in Carr’s work, particularly when they appear in reported speech, are there to signal that special tone of voice the English use, which usually conceals irony, sometimes gent
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