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a day in summer

14 september 2019

I loved J.L. Carr's Month in the Country but then somehow it took me over four years to read another of Carr's novels. I was pushed in that direction, I seem to vaguely remember, by seeing translations of A Day in Summer, maybe in Swedish, maybe in German – it may be that Carr is becoming better known in translation in Europe than in his native English back home. In any language, Carr is an astonishingly lucid and affecting writer, and I have to get to another of his books quicker next time.

I'd mentioned A Month in the Country as having reminded me of a number of other fictions, but only distantly. A Day in Summer is like that too, but with different echoes. Carr's novel recalls Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge in its acid depiction of a complacent community and the fault lines that shake individuals away from it. Weirdly, though, the writer that I kept thinking of while reading A Day in Summer was E.F. Benson. In fact, that's almost totally wrong. Benson's milieu is the village middle class, and although Carr's day takes place in a village, his scope is the whole range of its class system, from impeccable headmistresses to the abject poor. I guess it's more the structure of Carr's novel that reminds me of Benson's work: the way that the interlocking concerns of a community can be refracted through many different perspectives, with sympathy and satire in equal measures.

The slightly privileged perspective in A Day in Summer is that of an outsider to the village of Great Minden. Peplow, bank clerk and WW2 veteran, arrives on the village's Feast day, a total stranger. He's there to kill a man.

This is no spoiler, because you'd learn it on page 4 even if you hadn't read the back cover. The motive and victim aren't mysterious either: the targeted man has killed Peplow's son in a hit-and-run incident, and though Carr doesn't reveal the killer's identity right away, it isn't any melodramatic secret: it turns out to be a roadie for a traveling show, hence Peplow's need to track him across England to do away with him. The wonder of the novel is the slow evolution of Peplow's vendetta as the day in Great Minden unfolds.

Another overall perspective comes from Ruskin, Peplow's old service buddy, who surveys the whole of the village from his window. He sees Peplow arrive, a big surprise to them both as Peplow did not know Ruskin lived there. Ruskin, who lost his legs in the war, spends this day in summer like all days, watching the village comings and goings from his window. He doesn't immediately deduce that Peplow is bent on a revenge killing, though, because elsewhere in Great Minden, another of their veteran comrades, Bellenger, is dying – and fixing to leave behind a son that nobody will care for because Ruskin is actually the boy's father.

Enough summary! Though that's only a fraction of the intricacies that Carr puts together in an economical 217 pages. Not only is A Day in Summer richly and resonantly plotted, but it's written in a vivid, dialogic English quite different from the soft lyricism of A Month in the Country. All manner of local dialects and specific class registers of speech come together in a potent and inventive linguistic brew. Here's a possible limit to the novel's appeal, of course. It must be difficult to translate, with more than the proverbial amount getting lost in the process. And the novel will seem dated in England and foreign everywhere else. But a lot of great fiction is dated and foreign. That's one reason we read fiction, after all: to travel virtually to other times and places.

Carr, J.L. A Day in Summer. 1963. London: Hogarth, 1986. PR 6053 .A694