Tribal Lays

D.J. Enright

  • The Hill Station by J.G. Farrell
    Weidenfeld, 238 pp, £6.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 297 77922 2

This is seemingly the first draft of roughly half of a novel which, had he lived to finish it, the author might possibly have entitled ‘The Doctor of Confusion’. It is right that it should be published, for it is good work, certainly in no obvious need of revision.

Perhaps, compared with J.G. Farrell’s previous three novels, The Hill Station (as its editor, John Spurling, decided to call it) might be termed ‘light’, but only in that the writing is less dense, less effortful in the reading, than is the case with the Irish Troubles and, more markedly, with The Singapore Grip. Jane Austen comes to mind, and not only because of the relative domesticity of the story, or its rather Austenish adultress, Mrs Forester: ‘We have decided to be friends, Emily and I, because we find men to be such coarse brutes, so lacking in refinement, is that not so, Emily?’ What also evokes that novelist is the limpidity, the lightness of texture which yet supports a sufficient weight of meaning.

The scene is Simla in the year 1871 – there is never any mystery about the dating of Farrell’s stories – and the characters are consequently British in the main. The British not exactly in India, but in a famous Indian hill-station, where we expect to find a mixture of the well-to-do and fashionable, grass-widows, the sickly, the military – and, less predictably, the clergy. In the Scottish eyes of Dr McNab, a man of the plains, Simla is ‘a factitious England’: ‘The Bishop’s half-timbered house, as it came into sight, only confirmed this impression; its Tudor air was familiar to McNab as the back-cloth of a thousand attempts to portray Merrie England. He eyed it suspiciously, almost expecting to see it shivering in the breeze.’ The linchpin of the novel, McNab is a sensible, serviceable man, and it looks as though Simla will require both his services and his sense. It is in such ‘factitious’ settings that the private life tends to throw out grotesque or gaudy blooms.

The ‘local colour’ is skilfully applied: more tactfully than in the somewhat over-researched Singapore Grip. There one had the satisfaction of recognising streets and districts, as accurately located as in the directory of the island published by the Ministry of Culture (and possibly that body’s highest achievement) – a pleasure dampened by rather more information about the production and marketing of rubber than most readers desire or the novel needs. Here the author’s research is more fully assimilated, or more to the point, or perhaps more interesting in itself, and so lends substance and authority to the unfolding story. Thus McNab on phthisis (the contemporary term): ‘Attempts had been made to classify the variety of morbid sounds that one might hear while listening to the chest of a consumptive: the incipient disease might be heralded by slight clicks, by mucous, sub-mucous, and sibilant rhonchus, slight, crepitant rhonchus (that’s to say, a rattle or râle), or even by increased resonance of the voice ... But such sounds might well be produced merely by minor bronchial conditions. As the disease progressed, however, the sounds became more distinctive though no less varied and might include cavernous respiration, cavernous rhonchus, amphoric resonance, metallic tinkling, that ominous clicking and bubbling which McNab had just heard, pectoriloquy (the sound of the patient’s voice heard through the stethoscope) and, though rarely, the distinct sound of fluid in motion on succussion (the shaking of the patient’s thorax)... ’

As we know, tuberculosis was a killer, of the kind of pallid young woman making her way into the hills (or ‘being ridden at her last fence, poor soul’, as the ghoulish hotel-keeper Lowrie puts it), and also of the Reverend Kingston, pastor of Saint Saviour’s, who shares the centre of the novel with McNab, and perforce becomes the Doctor’s patient. The Doctor is a great note-taker: in The Siege of Krishnapur we saw him recording the details of Mrs Scott’s death in childbirth.

Several storms are brewing in the teacups of Simla – would that Farrell had been spared to see them break! There is Mrs McNab’s niece, Emily, who has her eye on a blue-eyed officer who has his eye (how honest a one we do not know) on her. On a visit to the McNabs, she is the newcomer to India, always a useful if not indispensable member of the cast, and inclined to feel impatient with her stolid-seeming uncle and aunt. ‘They lacked that little touch of aristocratic ampleur in their attitude to life, it seemed to Emily.’ The McNabs, Emily’s mother has told her, first met ‘under strained circumstances ... in some battle or other with lots of flies about and without clothes on’ – this is what ‘history’, the dreadful siege of Krishnapur 14 years earlier, has dwindled to. That meeting might account for Aunt Miriam’s having married beneath her. Also, Emily is vaguely aware, both had been married previously: in fact, Miriam’s first husband died in the Crimea, McNab’s first wife died from cholera in some other Indian station.

Emily, whose mother married upwards into a ladyship, is likely to get a little above herself: a condition which the author corrects or maybe condones by a brief reference to Marx, currently sucking a pencil in the Reading Room of the British Museum. A healthy, bright, attractive young thing (though one of her arms is slightly deformed), she loves to chatter and, while she has grown deeply attached to them, she suffers from her relatives’ taciturnity: ‘Not only did many of the conversations they had between themselves seem to consist mainly of a faint smile or a raised eyebrow (a grunt or a click of the tongue and they became positive chatterboxes!) but there was something about them which seemed to discourage unnecessary words in others ... at least, Emily found it discouraged them in her.’ She is thus all the readier to make new friends. It appears from Farrell’s notes that the blue-eyed lieutenant, another lively chatterer, was to leave her in some degree of lurch.

Then there is Mrs Forester, the fallen woman, or lady, whose little boy (clearly doomed from the start, like young Hanno in Buddenbrooks) was to die of rabies – there is already a rabid animal on the prowl – leaving her free to elope with the grimly tenacious Captain Hagan. The last words of The Hill Station, spoken in some embarrassment by the blue-eyed lieutenant, refer to her: ‘I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding. An awful lot of dreadful gup flies about the bazaar, you know. It’s the servants in India, Emily, they spread all sorts of fanciful tales.’ A touch of Forster’s ‘Turtons and Burtons’ there, but only a touch; a touch of Kipling too. And a quiet double irony, in that tales about Mrs Forester are likely to be substantially true, and in that gossip has always been a prime pastime of the overseas British themselves. McNab, we are told, had only been half-joking when he remarked to Miriam that, in the treatise he has long been meditating, ‘he was thinking of including gossip among his Indian diseases.’

But the most violent storm, whose beginnings we witness in this first half of the novel, is one of public, if to modern eyes hardly very momentous, concern. Much to the Bishop’s displeasure (he is a man of the world), the Reverend Kingston is well on the path to Rome, introducing into his church such sinister innovations as incense, kissing the Prayer Book, and lighted candles on the Communion Table. His fever-stricken and apparently demented curate, Forsythe, has even stuffed a white bird, approximating to a dove, which is to be hung above the altar to represent the Holy Ghost in flight; moreover, he has obliged their dog to fast during Lent. This latter is a nice stroke of humour, since all dogs in India live on the edge of starvation. The very idea of near-riots caused by the transplanting of the Oxford Movement to Indian soil is comic, as outraged Church of Englanders and trouble-seeking troopers on sick-leave break up Kingston’s service with cries of ‘No Popery!’ and ‘Down with the Puseyites!’ – an incident borrowed, according to John Spurling, from St George’s-in-the-East, Stepney, in 1859. The seed of Farrell’s interest in the subject was dropped casually in Krishnapur. Finding a copy of Keble’s The Christian Year left behind by his wife, the Collector remarks to McNab: ‘I have always considered myself to believe in God, but I find such enthusiasm offends me.’

The rumpus in The Hill Station is not solely a comic set-piece. Therein is enacted the ancient clash between the clerical politician (the Bishop) and the fanatic/martyr (Kingston), on this occasion observed by the sceptical, inquiring Scottish doctor who has been dragged into the ridiculous affair against his will. ‘I know nothing of these religious matters,’ he tells the Bishop gruffly when the cleric tries to enlist him in the crusade against ‘Romish play-acting’: ‘Medicine is my affair.’ In Krishnapur it was ‘I confess I know nothing about military matters,’ when the Collector asked his opinion of the efficacy of the newly-built ramparts.

Yet is it altogether against the Doctor’s will, or his present preoccupations? His treatise on Indian medicine is described as ‘an attempt to distil some order from the chaos of a life’s work in medicine’. But the nature of the treatise is changing (and not merely owing to the depredations of white ants back in Krishnapur), for McNab has come to sense ‘another dimension to sickness’, a moral or a social or a spiritual one, though he is uncertain even how to define it. The line of inquiry is of a different order from his long-standing, totally scientific belief that cholera is waterborne. This new and growing conviction is based, not on objective evidence or experimental work, but ‘simply on an instinct that all things were one, that everything was connected, that an illness was merely one of many fruits of an underground plant in the community as a whole.’ With the ‘factitious England’ reference in mind, I had supposed this might turn out to be a psychosomatic theory: viz. that sickness among the British derived from the moral, social and spiritual ambiguity of their position in India, the ills of empire, the cancer of colonialism ... But nothing so obvious: Farrell’s notes refer to ‘McNab as anchor man ... supposed to be writing on medicine actually investigating religion’, and the Doctor was to have encounters with a Hindu fakir (all things are Brahman?) and possibly also with Madame Blavatsky, who (as Farrell noted) actually visited Simla ten years after the date of the novel’s events and established the Simla Eclectic Theosophical Society.

As John Spurling implies, it does not seem very likely that sobersided McNab would yield to mystical transports, or that Farrell would have encouraged him in East-West religious eclecticism. Not on the evidence of the novels we have, at any rate. True, in Krishnapur McNab had a reputation for ‘fanciful notions’, but that was largely the doing of his implacable opponent, Dr Dunstaple, and when, some twenty years after the siege, the Collector remarked to George Fleury (Miriam’s brother, incidentally), ‘Ah yes, McNab. He was the best of us all. The only one who knew what he was doing,’ he presumably had the Doctor’s views on cholera and its treatment in mind.

Yet perhaps The Hill Station might not have proved another fairly plain tale from the hills. Perhaps there is, or would have been, something new here: something to which the quiet of Simla, constituting for McNab something like laboratory conditions, would lend itself. In his professional capacity he has had opportunity to observe the power of faith among both Christians and (more sensationally) Hindus. What form would his inquiry have taken? The study of religion as an opiate? The passion/phthisis of Kingston versus the blandness/rude health of the Bishop (‘a handsome, powerfully built man’, champion croquet-player and arm-wrestler, who maintains that martyrdom is best left to ‘our Roman brothers’, who appear to have a taste for it)? The physical strength that religious convictions can give, sporadically at least, to a man on the edge of collapse? Sickness as a sign of grace? Or, indeed, the opposite: sickness as a sign of sickness? Or would the Doctor’s inquiry have ended in sheer confusion? It is a tribute to this half-novel that, though speculation is patently vain, one cannot resist it.

The novel runs to 135 pages, and the rest of the book is occupied by three essays and Farrell’s Indian diary, all of them deserving better than to be thought of as padding. Malcolm Dean supplies a personal memoir, while John Spurling discusses Farrell’s relations with Stendhal, Thomas Mann, Richard Hughes and Malcolm Lowry, and, by reproducing Farrell’s notes, indicates the general course the story was to have taken. Margaret Drabble writes on the comic undercutting, at their most solemn moments, of Farrell’s characters and their world-views, adding, however, that he ‘combined a sense of the pointless absurdity of man with a real and increasing compassion for characters caught up in decay and confusion, so that, though they may be the puppets of history, they are not merely puppets.’ Finally, there is the diary Farrell kept during early 1971, when he was travelling in India to gather material for The Siege of Krishnapur. Not meant for publication, this is a noticeably less stylish piece of writing than The Hill Station – although when Farrell records that during a nightmarish train-journey in third class a child ‘shat on the floor to the unconcern of its parents who flung it out of the window’, it is hard to tell whether haste, humour or wishful thinking is responsible. Distinctly impressive, however, are the brisk, dispassionate responses to people met, untouched by self-regard, and the sharp observation of the contents of the palace of the Maharajah of Benares and, in particular, the McNab-like accounts, neither squeamish nor morbid, of the burning of corpses on the ghats: ‘The outside bits tended to burn least quickly, the feet and the head; a couple of feet stuck out for some time, toes rather splayed, nails paler than the dark skin (the feet of a not young man I should say) while the middle portion of the body burned, the shin-bones showed very white, the skin having burned off quickly and there being little flesh to carbonise; presently the attendant turned one of the legs over – it was when it went right over against the natural articulation of the joint that the body really stopped being a person for me and became an object.’ That combination of coolness and feeling is characteristic of the author.