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.
This decline is, as Trevor put it, ‘no parochial phenomenon’. The Majestic – with its statue of Queen Victoria, its decrepit Imperial Bar and its old ladies living mentally in ‘heaven only knew what lonely Indian station out in the middle of nowhere’ – explicitly reflects the wider Empire, under attack both in Ireland (all that orange and green) and further afield (the encroaching indoor jungle), and crumbling ideologically as well as physically. The Major believes that the cause he recently fought for was just, ‘that throughout the world the great civilising power of the British Empire had been at stake’. Even so, he feels indignant (‘Hypocrisy’) when confronted with Edward’s elaborate war memorial, and listens in amazement to his host’s wandering prayer of thanks for the Versailles treaty: ‘For there is an order in the universe,’ Edward intones rather desperately; ‘there is an order … Without this purpose our life here below would be nothing more than a random collection of desperate acts.’ Later, when the Loyalist position is hopeless, Edward takes refuge in strange parodies of Victorian positivism – firing a blank round in a servant’s face and then getting him to spit in a beaker, for example, in an effort to measure fear’s effect on saliva production.
Having set up this ambitious correspondence, however, the novel develops it with a very light touch. As foliage takes command of the residents’ lounge and the giant ‘M’ from the façade’s ‘MAJESTIC’ nearly crushes a guest, the building takes on a rich, tragi-farcical life that has little to do with the thinner air of allegory. (‘I shall probably be reluctant,’ Farrell wrote to his publisher after delivering the manuscript, ‘to give the hotel-allegory side of it any more weight. It seems to me that a very little allegory goes a long way.’) And the emphasis on transience is as much absurdist or existentialist as political. ‘People are insubstantial,’ an elderly doctor mutters continually; ‘they never last.’ At one point he echoes Waiting for Godot’s ‘They give birth astride of a grave’ speech: ‘Strange, said the doctor coming back, to think that a beautiful woman who seemed like a solid thing, solid as granite, was really no more solid than a flaring match, a burst of flame, darkness before and darkness after … And so he rambled on while the Major ground his teeth and prodded the vegetables with a fork.’
One of Farrell’s models for writing about a community under threat was La Peste, and Troubles generally treats Irish nationalism as an abstract, impersonal force, a test of the principal characters’ values rather than something brought about by any characters to whom we might actually be introduced. We’re shown poverty and starvation and the Spencers’ pigheadedness and chauvinism, but the only living Sinn Fein activist to appear is seen from a distance through a Black and Tan’s binoculars, and the IRA men are faceless, offstage presences. In Edward, on the other hand, the Major repeatedly sees traces of a mildness and self-mockery ‘that did not go at all with his leonine features’. When a party of Oxford undergraduates drops by to goad this ‘perfectly splendid old Tory’ (‘I mean, have you even read Rousseau’s LeContrat social?’), the reader is manipulated into agreeing with their arguments while finding the students intensely annoying. It’s as though Edward is some demented great-uncle, deserving of much mockery and even dangerous in some circumstances yet still a family member – which is more or less the novel’s stance towards him.
From time to time he’s also given an awkward kind of pathos. Early on, he shows the Major the grounds, and after punishing a spaniel for killing a chicken by tying the bird round its neck, indicates a diamond-shaped bed of lavender: ‘“Planted by my dear wife.” After a moment, as if to clear up a possible misunderstanding, he added: “Before she died.”’ That evening, the Major looks out from the cat-filled bar and sees him stalking through the rain with an ‘unexpected air of abandonment’:
Edward was clad in a streaming hat and sodden overcoat and seemed oblivious of the rain … He continued his sightless walk, sloshing through pools that lay here and there on the grass, then crunching his way over the gravel in the direction of the clump of lavender planted by his wife ‘before she died’. At the lavender he froze into an attitude of despair. A little later Rover struggled up and under the impression that something was being hunted did his best to align himself and the dead chicken in a pointing position. The master, the dog and the dead chicken remained there motionless as the rain pelted down on them in the gathering darkness.
The Major drank off the rest of his cognac, shuddered, and picked up the oil lamp to light his way to bed.
The mixture here of sympathy, sadness and a pervasive irony verging on outright piss-taking – a tone that’s controlled beautifully throughout the book – is something Farrell learned to manage in the course of writing Troubles, assisted by his invention in the Major of a straight-faced ‘anchor-man’, as he called him.
He continued to play with the technique in his next two books, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978), and with the notion of depicting a threatened imperial order through its material culture and sense of spectacle as much as its ideas. Not that ideas are neglected: in The Siege of Krishnapur, set during the Indian Mutiny, a beleaguered cantonment finds the time to debate such matters as German biblical scholarship and how cholera is spread as well as the imperial missioncivilisatrice. Matthew Webb, the central figure in The Singapore Grip, chooses similarly inopportune moments to puzzle over British capital’s effects on South-East Asia. But Farrell’s most characteristic ploy is to embody abstractions in comically proliferating objects, such as a haul of trophies from the Great Exhibition – including a ‘gorse bruiser’ for making animal feed and electroplated statuettes of Shakespeare and Voltaire – which end up being used to mangle attacking sepoys’ bodies.
Among the shifts of emphasis in the later parts of Farrell’s triptych is an effort to give the troublesome natives more presence. The Siege of Krishnapur features a British-educated Indian sub-princeling, for better or worse a heavily Naipaulian figure, equipped with some wonderfully elaborated bric-à-brac:
Near a fireplace of marble inlaid with garnets, lapis lazuli and agate, the Maharaja’s son sat on a chair constructed entirely of antlers, eating a boiled egg and reading Blackwood’s Magazine. Beside the chair a large cushion on the floor still bore the impression of where he had been sitting a moment earlier; he preferred squatting on the floor to the discomfort of chairs but feared that his English visitors might regard this as backward.
Elsewhere, Mr Willoughby, the magistrate, is vexed by his failure to persuade the local landowners to address the annual floods by reinforcing embankments instead of sacrificing goats. Come the rainy season, the landowners laugh at the memory of his eccentric advice as Brahmins armed with goats approach the river, which subsides. The Singapore Grip, which re-creates the run-up to the fall of Singapore, has numerous Chinese characters, and we spend time with the approaching Japanese alongside one Private Kikuchi, who finds good reasons to wonder if his commanding officer is ‘altogether sane’.
Farrell also worked at deepening his central characters’ historical and political consciousness, and acquired a greater interest in the economics of empire-building, culminating in The Singapore Grip’s close look at the workings of the Malayan rubber industry – a more entertaining plotline than it sounds. But much of the books’ distinctiveness comes from the unusual touches sprinkled across all three. Some of these are stylistic: Farrell likes mid-sentence ellipses (‘He stopped and listened … but no, he had been mistaken’) and old-fashioned time indicators such as ‘presently’ (lifted, according to his friend John Spurling, from Richard Hughes). And he renders his characters’ inner voices oddly, sometimes putting thoughts in quotation marks, sometimes using free indirect style and sometimes forgetting which of the two he’s doing. From time to time this makes people think in the wrong tense: ‘“What was all this, anyway,” mused Walter grimly, “but the physical evidence of all the more fundamental changes that had taken place in Singapore in the last two decades?”’ On occasion quotation marks appear at random in passages of free indirect style: ‘He began to think about other things, about the Governor, and about oil dumps, and about his mother in Hertfordshire. “What a terrible year 1941 had been!’ (These ones never get closed.)
Whatever the setting, Farrell’s world is lightly surreal, filled with animals as well as people – cats and dogs mostly, though there’s an orangutan too – and sexually charged in strange ways. Behind the backs of his timid heroes and predatory libertines, he weaves strands of lubricious comedy around such characters as Edward’s naughty younger daughters and the women who fight over Matthew Webb. In The Siege of Krishnapur, an inadvertently exposed breast is ‘the shape of a plump carp’; after months of hunger, it’s ‘more like plaice or Dover sole’. Other comparisons are equally homely. Japanese bombers in The Singapore Grip ease through the skies ‘like fish through a sluice-gate’; a burned corpse’s arm comes away from the shoulder ‘like the wing of an overcooked chicken’. Farrell sometimes addresses the reader directly (‘Picture a map of India as big as a tennis court with two or three hedgehogs crawling over it’), but his ironic distance makes it surprising when he jokes self-referentially about cash-strapped men of letters or explains that the forces generated by exploited Asian labour were transmitted not only to colonial Singapore ‘but much further in time and in space: to you thousands of miles away, reading in bed or in a deckchair on the lawn, or to me as I sit writing at a table’.
The Siege of Krishnapur won the 1973 Booker Prize. The award dinners of those days were not ready for primetime: Rab Butler, drunk, tried to warm up the audience with some anti-semitic jokes (‘A Scotsman, an Irishman and a Jewboy – that sort of thing,’ according to Martyn Goff; Terence Kilmartin walked out), and Farrell then followed the 1972 winner, John Berger, in denouncing capitalism and Booker’s treatment of Guyanese workers. David Lean optioned the novel a year later, and though the project came to nothing, Farrell found himself in funds for the first time in his life. After finishing The Singapore Grip in his two-room flat in South Kensington, he bought a cottage on the coast of west Cork and moved there in March 1979, motivated partly by the tax breaks on offer for writers. He started work on a novel set in the 1870s in which Anglican controversies play out in India; an unfinished draft was later published as The Hill Station (1981). On 11 August, fishing for his supper from a rock, as he’d started doing most afternoons, he was swept into Bantry Bay at the beginning of a storm and drowned, aged 44.
This book, J.G. Farrell in His Own Words, a selected letters and diaries with linking commentary, is Lavinia Greacen’s second pass at the story of his life, a story that brings aspects of his work into sharper focus without unduly cleaning up its oddness and irony. James Gordon Farrell – Jim to his friends – turns out to have had more in common with J.G. Ballard than with Paul Scott, George MacDonald Fraser, M.M. Kaye and other writers of 1970s bestsellers with imperial themes. Like the empty swimming-pools and weed-choked concrete landscapes that appear again and again in JGB’s imagined futures, the collapsing buildings and insanely cherished Victorian knick-knacks in JGF’s imagined past draw partly on childhood memories of the Second World War – Farrell spoke of seeing ‘adults in pyjamas’ assembling ‘in our air-raid shelter clutching the most extraordinary objects’ – and partly on a late 20th-century sense of crisis. In Farrell’s case, the crisis has to do with Vietnam, decolonisation and British declinism, and also perhaps with feeling out of step with the times. Born in 1935, and shaped by high-minded postwar notions of rebellion, he was unable to approve wholeheartedly of the 1960s but even more suspicious of what he saw as a coming ‘soccer and money cultural ambience’.
His early life, during which he wrote few letters (‘Dear Mum, It snowed on Saturday for about 20 minutes during French’), gave him an insider’s/outsider’s perspective on imperial matters. His father, Bill Farrell, was a middle-class Liverpudlian descended from Irish Quakers; his mother, Josephine Russell, was Irish but of mostly English descent. The couple met on a cruise ship, got married in Rangoon and spent their first months together in Bengal, where Bill managed a factory for the United Molasses Company. They moved to Liverpool as a result of the Depression, unrest in India and Bill’s increasing deafness, which consigned him – by the time of Farrell’s birth – to a back-room job in his father’s wine-importing business, a job he regarded as a humiliation. Farrell and his brothers spent the war in a rambling house called Boscobel in Southport, sometimes sharing their quarters with evacuees. In 1947, with financial assistance from the Russells, the family settled in County Dublin, and Farrell spent his schooldays shuttling back and forth across the Irish Sea, coming to feel Irish in England and English in Ireland.
At prep school in Cheshire, where he was made head boy, and later at public school near Blackpool, he showed an aptitude for languages and sport. If not quite an unreflective young professional in the making (a sardonic, watchful temperament was already apparent, Greacen says), he was at least a semi-hearty when, in 1956, he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, to study law. His main aim was to distinguish himself on the rugby pitch, but towards the end of his first term he contracted polio, leading to a spell in an iron lung and months of physiotherapy. His upper body musculature didn’t fully recover – which, along with post-polio syndrome, probably contributed to his drowning – and for stretches of time he thought of himself as a cripple. When, nearly a year later, he returned to his studies, his tutors encouraged him to switch to modern languages as a less demanding option. Oxford didn’t impress him greatly – he described it as ‘a city of effete embryo Hitlers’ attending lectures on punctuation – and he distanced himself from its beerier side, forming lasting friendships mostly with part-outsiders such as non-Anglophile American students.
Farrell’s paper trail begins in earnest in 1960, when he fired off a letter to the Irish Times in defence of Joyce before leaving for France to teach English and work on his first novel. Writing to a German au pair ‘who wishes not to be identified’ – Greacen’s main find since assembling her biography – he speaks of days swimming past ‘like swollen, pink fish’ and of girls on a nudist beach sunning themselves ‘like seals (well, not too like seals!)’. Lusting after an edition of Joyce’s letters, he urges another friend not to buy it for him: ‘I should feel terrible. Besides, I enjoy stalking the odd material possession through the dripping, autumnal woods of my salary and would feel cheated if Joyce were suddenly delivered to me bound hand and foot and swinging from a pole.’ But we mostly get a picture of a self-absorbed young literary type identifying with the characters in Antonioni films and wrestling studiedly with ‘le cafard’, French Communism and Sartrean existentialism. Much of the wrestling went into A Man from Elsewhere, which a review in the New Statesman called ‘unreal and cerebral … dreamed up out of literature and the current French cinema’. This assessment gave Farrell ‘one or two uneasy twinges’.
He had returned to England to find a publisher for the novel, and though there were further stints abroad – in France and America in the 1960s and India and the Far East in the 1970s – West London became his base. (Dublin was a bad place to write on account of ‘the invisible tendrils of electricity constantly wavering about and preparing to snatch me back into adolescence’.) He wants his next book to be funny, he writes in 1962, and ‘perhaps as time goes on I’ll feel funnier.’ In the role of a tormented artist, at least, he’s often Woody Allenish. ‘My idea of a novel now,’ he informs the ex-au pair in 1963, ‘is something violent and wild and poetic which all my enemies will tear to shreds in a frenzy of uncontrollable hate.’ He adds: ‘Now I come to think of it, I don’t have any enemies.’ In the event, The Lung, which transfers his polio to a misanthropic boozer called Martin Sands, was commended for some winning passages of black comedy. A Girl in the Head, written under the influence of Nabokov, and featuring a family not unlike the Spencers in Troubles, was less kindly reviewed, thanks chiefly to a ‘frankly embarrassing’ subplot (John Spurling’s later diagnosis) about a romantic young man called Alessandro.
As the decade wore on, Farrell became aware of ‘a creepy feeling that polite society can dissolve into a bloodbath at the drop of a hat’. Current events were part of it – the hat-dropping letter, written in 1966, moves on to the ‘nightmarish’ situation in Vietnam – but so too was a vaguer sense of high-cultural shipwreck, of French-reading intellectualism losing its grip on the world, as in his musings on the Watts riots in 1965:
I was horrified by the sight of civilisation breaking down, people at last saying ‘This isn’t good enough. There is nothing in this way of life for us’ … And yet it’s a challenge of self-discipline to be tolerant & sympathetic, the kind of challenge that in almost any other field would interest me. Materialism, rocketing crime, pop-singers & the worship of youth, it seems too easy to let oneself slide into the sort of arrogant fascism that Montherlant offers; a rejection of life because you feel that it hasn’t gone your way … Rather as Russell [McCormmach, a friend] was saying that it seemed to him that Einstein felt that physics had gone Bohr’s way & not his. The idea being that I should really have liked to be a pop-singer, & had all the girls.
In truth, and in spite of the doleful trying-it-on in some of his early letters (‘I wish I had taken a photo of you with no clothes in Rotherfield so that I had something to remind me of all of you and not only of your sweet face’), there were more than enough girls. ‘I’ve been living the most extraordinary life in the last few weeks,’ he told his long-suffering German correspondent in 1963, ‘since I met a call-girl (!!!) who decided she was in love with me and introduced me to all her prostitute friends, gangsters, pimps etc.’ His confidence boosted by this on-off connection, he went on to be spoken of in the 1970s book world as ‘un homme fatal’, or so Greacen claims, and it’s not easy to keep track of each ‘babe’ and ‘dear’ he wrote to. He had no interest, however, in living with any of them; his morning routine apparently involved a ‘monosyllabic toast and Bovril breakfast which made plain the expectation of being left alone to work‘. Yet most stayed on friendly terms with him even after the Bovril treatment, and the writers he respected or got on with were often women: Elizabeth Bowen, Olivia Manning, Margaret Drabble, Alison Lurie.
The letters from Farrell’s years of post-Booker fame are an education in the glamour of English literary celebrity. ‘I don’t want to be interfering about your azalea,’ he writes to Drabble, ‘but shouldn’t it have more light?’ To his parents he boasts of helping Richard Hughes weed his asparagus bed. Among his communications are terse postscripts on Bill Tidy’s cartoons (‘The Cloggies is good’) and television (‘I like the fox called Basil’). But the most absorbing letters and notebook entries touch on the writing of the books he’s remembered for. ‘I’m tired of isolated skirmishes on the sex and politics front,’ he writes of his work in 1966, but ‘the only idea I’ve had to date is to set [a story] in a town under siege where the different strata of society continue to function more or less normally in spite of the odd shell landing in the market place.’ In his application for the Harkness fellowship that took him to New York, he speaks of wanting to write about and for ‘people trying to adjust themselves to abrupt changes in their civilisation, whether it be Ireland or in Japan’. A bad break-up with a New York-based woman called Sarah goes straight into Troubles, which was completed with the help of amphetamine pills provided by a French doctor friend.
Farrell read a great deal of fiction, and his commentary on it is often entertaining. On Patrick White’s Voss: ‘I admired it very much, without enjoying it.’ He enthuses about Saul Bellow; Malcolm Lowry and Richard Hughes are talismanic figures. But what comes across most strongly is the extent to which he took his cues from Europe. Camus shows up early and often – he’s mentioned in connection with the town under siege – and, strictures on Hans Castorp notwithstanding, Farrell was always pressing The Magic Mountain on people. (The theology-riven resort in The Hill Station functions as a kind of sanatorium.) While beginning Troubles he read Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and reread The Leopard, enthusing about its ‘clear, very concrete images’. He also wrote of trying to emulate what Robert Musil did ‘with his Viennese Society for the Promotion of whatever it was in The Man without Qualities’, meaning the doomed preparations in Musil’s novel for festivities in honour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A similar act of large-scale self-congratulation plays an important role in each of Farrell’s major books: a victory parade in Dublin in Troubles, the Great Exhibition in The Siege of Krishnapur, the deranged planning for a procession celebrating the rubber trade in The Singapore Grip.
When prompted in 1972 to explain what he was up to in Troubles, Farrell wrote – in a piece not excerpted by Greacen – of trying ‘to show people “undergoing” history’. Though ‘most of the book was written before the current Irish difficulties broke out, giving it an unintended topicality,’ he had planned from the beginning ‘to use this period of the past as a metaphor for today’. He was pleased when reviewers noticed this, as they generally did after Troubles and couldn’t fail to do in the case of The Singapore Grip, which comes across as musing on both the fall of Saigon – he visited the city two months before that happened, making note of the ‘fairly good’ French cooking on offer – and the incipiently multicultural UK of the late 1970s. At times The Singapore Grip even seems to have the 1980s in view, as in a long passage explaining that successful businesses tend to follow the prevailing notions of social morality. ‘It is only at a time like the present,’ the narrator says, ostensibly of 1942, ‘when it is hard to be sure what society at large believes, or if it believes anything at all, that a businessman … limits himself to a dogged pursuit of his profits.’
Immediately after Farrell’s death, this kind of stuff prompted mutterings that his novels were too 1970s in emphasis, and for a while he was filed away on the Heath-to-Callaghan bookshelf next to Paul Scott, about whom he had had his doubts. In the course of the 1980s a feeling also set in that his coloniser-centred writing had been made obsolete by such figures as Salman Rushdie and Timothy Mo, though both were Farrell fans – especially Mo, who in 1990 scuba-dived at the spot where Farrell drowned. Still, he was chiefly commemorated as a writer’s writer – in Derek Mahon’s poems ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ and ‘The World of J.G. Farrell’, in Drabble’s The Gates of Ivory and Lurie’s Foreign Affairs – until about five years ago, when the reissue of his Empire triptych by NYRB Classics chimed with an upsurge in his British visibility. Apart from the books themselves, some of the credit for this has to go to the Man Group. A ‘Best of the Booker’ exercise in 2008 brought The Siege of Krishnapur further back into currency, and this year Troubles won the ‘Lost Booker’, having been ineligible the first time round thanks to a change in the rules in 1970.
Beyond the nuts-and-bolts level, his novels have also benefited from changing fashions in Irish historiography and even from a certain absorption into Irishness. Postcolonial studies looks more kindly on him, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have refreshed his ‘unintended topicality’. Above all, perhaps, his uneasy, ironic identification with Empire-builders might now strike a British reader, at least, as being almost salutary. ‘The British,’ an essayist writes in J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, ‘have simply declared their independence from their imperial forebears. The Empire was long ago abolished, they say, so what is there for us to feel responsible for? And anyway, the people who ran the Empire were Victorians, dour, stiff folk in dark clothes, nothing like us.’ Farrell’s trick is to come on like one of these slippery Brits while making the opposite case. As the Collector, Mr Hopkins, thinks in The Siege of Krishnapur: ‘We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us … but what if we’re only an afterglow of them?’
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