His Peach Stone

Christopher Tayler

  • BuyJ.G. Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries edited by Lavinia Greacen
    Cork, 464 pp, €19.95, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 85918 476 9

A coincidence: I wrote the first page of ‘It’ on St Patrick’s Day with Irish pipers tuning up down in the street 12 floors beneath. In the parade along 5th Avenue they carried banner portraits of Sean McDermott, Kevin Barry and, no doubt, other martyrs. I didn’t stay long because the wind was bitter, the pavement covered in slush and my bones frozen to the marrow. These parades make the Americans look like imbeciles. But, the first page: I wrote it twice, satisfactory neither time.

J.G. Farrell – a Liverpool-born, Oxford-educated writer of Anglo-Irish descent – was living in New York when he wrote these words in his diary on 18 March 1967. He was 32 and had published three novels, A Man from Elsewhere (1963), The Lung (1965) and A Girl in the Head (1967), to only moderate acclaim. (None of them has been reprinted.) ‘It’ was going to be a novel dealing with the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, which his Irish Protestant mother had childhood memories of, and which he was reading up on in a public library on 53rd Street, ‘scarcely adding to my feeble conception of how the thing should be’. According to his biographer Lavinia Greacen, he was also working on three short stories, shuffling around such elements as a man trapped in an apartment building; a passive, possibly suicidal Englishman abroad; a military widower with a teenage daughter; and battles with hordes of cockroaches, modelled on those in his hotel room.

‘How,’ he wrote on 29 March,

to make a large novel centripetal instead of centrifugal? Musil does it with the character of Ulrich who, by being uncommitted to anything, acts as the touchstone to all the committed characters around him – yet Ulrich isn’t a cipher as Hans Castorp tends to be. This is a very subtle piece of organisation. Another way, of course, is by using a very tightly organised plot that draws all the disparate elements together. Perhaps it should have both these things – but whatever it is at the centre must be substantial like the stone in a peach and it must exist before one can ever begin to start thinking constructively.

In May he decided to have a break and, on a friend’s recommendation, took a boat from Narragansett to Block Island. There he saw the charred remains of the Ocean View Hotel, which had once claimed to have the world’s longest bar – 101 stools – and hosted the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and the Vanderbilts. It had burned down, he was told, ‘a year or so ago’. On 11 May he inspected the site:

Old bedsprings twisted with heat; puddles of molten glass; washbowls that had fallen through to the foundations; a flight of stone steps leading up to thin air; twisted pipes; lots of nails lying everywhere and a few charred beams. I think the way the glass had collected like candlegrease under the windows impressed me most. When you picked it up it was inclined to flake away into smaller pieces in your hand … Anyway this gave me an idea, which seems to me a good one, for the dwelling place of the family.

He had found his peach stone. The beds, the basins and the melted glass all feature in the opening of the finished novel, Troubles, which took shape rapidly and was published in 1970, winning praise from William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen. ‘If I had bothered to look at [my] diary,’ he noted two months after its publication, ‘I wd also have used the “flight of stone steps leading up into thin air”, which I simply forgot.’ He had added a detail to his version of the ruins: ‘a large number of tiny white skeletons scattered round about. The bones are very delicate and must have belonged, one would have thought, to small quadrupeds.’ They turn out to have belonged to the cats that, replacing the hordes of New York cockroaches, infest his imagined building before its destruction.

In the novel, the ruined structure is the Majestic Hotel, a converted big house on the Irish coast that’s razed by fire in 1921. Troubles tells the story of its last two years, as witnessed by Brendan Archer, referred to throughout as ‘the Major’, a blinkered but liberal-minded Englishman of independent means made passive, bitter and melancholy by his experiences in the trenches. In 1919 he arrives at the Majestic as the fiancé of Angela Spencer, the eldest daughter of the hotel’s widowed owner, Edward. The Major’s relationship with Angela is largely epistolary – he has dim memories of kissing her in Brighton while on leave, and of afterwards steadying himself on a cactus, ‘which had rendered many of his parting words insincere’ – and though he feels obliged to settle the matter honourably, he doesn’t have strong feelings about it either way. But his attempts to find out what’s required of him are deflected at every turn. Edward, a squirearchical ex-military Protestant, merely thanks him hoarsely from time to time for what he’s doing, leaving him none the wiser about what that might be. Edward’s caddish son, Ripon, isn’t the sort one can appeal to, the younger sisters are at boarding school and Angela is impossible to corner. So the Major finds himself haunting the building, embarrassed and bewildered.

The Majestic is not a well run hotel. On arrival, the Major is led, after a long wait in the dusty foyer, to a cavernous Palm Court. Here the gloom caused by insurgent foliage, and creepers dangling from above or throttling the lamps, makes it hard to rediscover what his fiancée looks like. In time, ‘the advancing green tide’ engulfs the area uncontested and roots from overgrown tropical shrubs penetrate the foundations. The beds are never changed, the food is unpleasant, whole wings are made uninhabitable by storm damage and on his first night the Major finds a rotting sheep’s head in his cupboard. The cats are also a problem, in particular an enormous one with an ‘evil, orange, horridly whiskered head’ and ‘acid green eyes’, which disrupts a game of whist in an alarming fashion one evening. Edward, however, is a fierce Loyalist landlord, too busy railing against mutinous tenant farmers to make a good manager; ‘as for baldly asking a lady to pay her bill, he would as soon have committed sodomy.’ In consequence, his only guests are genteel old women too cash-strapped or confused to move elsewhere.

Once the Major has been absorbed into the hotel, his comic-Kafkaesque engagement comes to an end. Angela dies of leukaemia, the Spencers never having mentioned her condition, assuming that she must have brought it up, and the book moves more squarely into the pattern of social comedy laid down by such big house novels as Bowen’s The Last September. The Anglo-Irish quality carry out their social rituals in a state of willed obliviousness to the collapse of British power, having mixed feelings about the Black and Tans and spouting platitudes about the common people being too warmhearted to embrace the ‘appalling Shinners’, until the big fire comes along. There are plot developments: Ripon elopes with a rich Catholic miller’s daughter, disgracing himself in his father’s eyes (‘a daughter of Cardinal Newman might have been another matter’). Edward, in turn, has an affair with Sarah Devlin, a sharp-tongued Catholic girl from a nearby village, while fulminating against Irish disloyalty and growing more and more eccentric – violently so, in the end. But the plotting is less important than the large-scale set pieces, such as a disastrous ball; and the novel succeeds thanks mostly to Farrell’s patience and inventiveness in charting the Majestic’s decline.

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