Unique, idiosyncratic, unknowable, tenacious, resourceful ... all these terms apply to J.L. Carr, headmaster, publisher, novelist. Byron Rogers' biography, The Last Englishman, is an affectionate portrait of a person who could be as exasperating as he was inspiring; it is a tribute to a one-off, a man as singular as his books.
When I read Carr's A Month in the Country, "his masterpiece", as Rogers terms it, "as close to perfection as anything written in my time," I was content to let the book stand. My strong impression was that Carr couldn't have done any better than that novel, so to read his others would be to take a small step down, as it were, or at least to the side. It turns out my instinct was right, for while readers, when they find something they like, tend to want more of the same, with every novel he wrote Carr offered something different: he was "too original", says Rogers, "he never repeated himself," and the fact that each book had a different publisher speaks to that 'uncommercial' variety.
That Carr's own life provided the material for the books might suggest a degree of uniformity or closeness across his work, but as Rogers says it's the opposite case. The fact also that real life had to be toned down to be credible as fiction might tell you that Carr invested so much in every situation in which he found himself, pursued his passions with doggedness and a strong sense of right and duty, compartmentalised his relationships, so it's perhaps not surprising that each book is markedly different from its fellows and every one provided an outlet for a particular set of often bizarre experiences. Were I, then, to read more Carr I might not find the same perfect pitch of A Month in the Country, the poignancy, the delicacy, the exquisite sadness, so for me I think he'll be a one-book author; I've had the best of him.
Carr once worked out that he earned 17p an hour from writing fiction, each novel selling in modest quantities and eventually being remaindered. A Month in the Country took him to another level, winning the Guardian Fiction Prize, being shortlisted for the Booker, then turned into a film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh. It is now a Penguin Modern Classic and a NYRB Classic with an introduction by Michael Holroyd. Having read the biography I'd like to revisit the novel - a second reading would, I'm sure, only deepen the pleasure to be had on the first. As I said the other day, if you don't already know it, you have a treat in store, but I'll recommend this biography, too, to give a sense of the inimitable man behind the story.