On 11 August 1979, a humane and singular man, who after long periods punctuated by adversity declared himself ‘happier than I’ve been in years’, left his isolated cottage near Bantry Bay in the west of Ireland to fish from his favourite rock. There he was swept away by a huge wave, outrider of an unprecedented storm which two days later would claim the lives of eighteen crew in the Fastnet yacht race. A witness said no cry left the fisherman’s lips and he made no visible attempt to save himself. The body of the novelist J. G. Farrell was found a month later. With his death at 44, contemporary literature lost a unique voice and the prospect of even greater riches to come. John Banville said it was ‘nothing short of a disaster for English fiction’.
Farrell was an enigma. Inhibited and self-sufficient, his awkwardness was masked by a sardonic wit. He loved hosting dinners and was known for his generosity and humour. Strongly left-wing, he bought agreeable wines at auction and shopped, when he could afford it, at Harrods Food Hall. Deeply attracted – and attractive – to women, he shied away from committing himself, writing of ‘a curious anarchy inside me which requires me to smash to pieces every promising relationship’. Self-deprecating, he was nevertheless aware of his talent and intensely ambitious.
Born in Liverpool to Anglo-Irish parents, Farrell moved with his family to Dublin. After an English public school education and a year working in Canada, he went up to Oxford where he excelled at sport. Then he was felled by polio, the defining tragedy of his life. Following harrowing treatment in an iron lung, he recovered, but the effects of the disease would last for the rest of his life. Physically, he was permanently weakened and afflicted by respiratory problems. Mentally, he became more distrustful of – and detached from – a world in which apparent certainties could be destroyed by an uncaring fate. He was occasionally overcome
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On 11 August 1979, a humane and singular man, who after long periods punctuated by adversity declared himself ‘happier than I’ve been in years’, left his isolated cottage near Bantry Bay in the west of Ireland to fish from his favourite rock. There he was swept away by a huge wave, outrider of an unprecedented storm which two days later would claim the lives of eighteen crew in the Fastnet yacht race. A witness said no cry left the fisherman’s lips and he made no visible attempt to save himself. The body of the novelist J. G. Farrell was found a month later. With his death at 44, contemporary literature lost a unique voice and the prospect of even greater riches to come. John Banville said it was ‘nothing short of a disaster for English fiction’.Farrell was an enigma. Inhibited and self-sufficient, his awkwardness was masked by a sardonic wit. He loved hosting dinners and was known for his generosity and humour. Strongly left-wing, he bought agreeable wines at auction and shopped, when he could afford it, at Harrods Food Hall. Deeply attracted – and attractive – to women, he shied away from committing himself, writing of ‘a curious anarchy inside me which requires me to smash to pieces every promising relationship’. Self-deprecating, he was nevertheless aware of his talent and intensely ambitious. Born in Liverpool to Anglo-Irish parents, Farrell moved with his family to Dublin. After an English public school education and a year working in Canada, he went up to Oxford where he excelled at sport. Then he was felled by polio, the defining tragedy of his life. Following harrowing treatment in an iron lung, he recovered, but the effects of the disease would last for the rest of his life. Physically, he was permanently weakened and afflicted by respiratory problems. Mentally, he became more distrustful of – and detached from – a world in which apparent certainties could be destroyed by an uncaring fate. He was occasionally overcome by a sense of futility and once, while in Spain, mused with dark humour that if he unpicked the soles of his espadrilles he could use the twine to hang himself. So it is no surprise that the novels for which he is remembered deal with how individuals react to dramatic change in their circumstances and how they cling to familiarities while the fabric of their life unravels. Farrell chose as his vehicle what he considered to be the most interesting event of his lifetime: the decline of the British Empire. The result was a magnificent trilogy in which his protagonists’ reactions and frailties are shown to be not only of their time but of all time. Elizabeth Bowen was among the first reviewers to note that Farrell captured the past ‘reflected in today’s consciousness’. The author was delighted she had so precisely speared his intention. The three books are Troubles (1970), set during the Irish War of Independence of 1919‒21 which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State; The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), loosely based on the siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of 1857; and The Singapore Grip (1978), which deals with the island’s conquest by the Japanese in 1942. Familiar symbols of empire – landed families of the Ascendancy; memsahibs, soldiers and administrators of the Victorian Raj; white boxwallahs and blinkered army officers complacent in their humid imperial outpost – are shown attempting to retain order in the chaos of changing realities. The tone throughout is comically ironic and in each book moments of almost surreal farce mingle with scenes of sharply observed horror. Farrell has an unerring eye for the small absurdities of life, reflecting his belief that the real experience of history ‘is not composed of treaties being signed or pincer movements. It’s smoke in your eyes or a blister on your foot.’ An underlying theme is the folly of attachment to possessions. Yet underneath all is a sympathy with the human condition about which Farrell, essentially, felt melancholy. The critic Ronald Binns called the trilogy ‘probably the most ambitious literary project conceived and executed by any British novelist in the 1970s’. But, despite the literary awards that the books attracted, for decades they were not so much disregarded as unnoticed. I came to Farrell nine years after his death. I too have Anglo-Irish ancestry and I bought a copy of Troubles for no other reason than that the setting was Ireland and that, according to a reviewer’s quote, Farrell was an ‘eccentric and highly gifted writer’. It was the word ‘eccentric’ that appealed. I was not disappointed. The idea of writing about people trapped by a dramatic change in circumstances came to Farrell while he was on a Harkness Fellowship in the US. Choosing Ireland as the setting, he intended to concentrate on the struggle by the Protestant Anglo-Irish to adapt to new realities as Ireland sought independence. But his ambitions extended further, ‘to comprehend and interpret for universal experience’. Initially, he struggled to find a way into the narrative, telling friends: ‘I’m still groping around in the maze looking not even for the way out but merely for a likely direction in which to start going.’ Then a chance visit to the fire-gutted ruin of the once opulent Ocean View Hotel on Block Island, south of Rhode Island, broke the creative jam. The Ocean View would be transformed into the decaying Majestic Hotel situated on a promontory near the fictional town of Kilnalough in Co. Wexford. Its elderly residents and crumbling fabric would be a metaphor for the waning power of England in the face of the rising Irish independence movement. Farrell chose for his main characters the hotel owner Edward Spencer, a craggy and peppery epitome of the Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and Major Brendan Archer through whose frequently perplexed eyes we witness events. Meanwhile, as he worked on his manuscript in the late 1960s, British troops became engaged in an increasingly turbulent Ulster. Farrell was unsettled by this coincidence. It would not be the only time in writing the trilogy that events in his present uncannily mirrored his vision of the past. Still haunted by memories of the First World War, the Major leaves hospital for Ireland and Kilnalough in 1919 to claim his bride. Angela Spencer lives in the mouldering Majestic with her father Edward. The Major is not sure if he had proposed to Angela the last time they met in Brighton, for his parting words then were rendered insincere by the pain he was experiencing from accidentally placing his hand on a cactus. Her letters to him have been almost barren of emotion, but as she signs them ‘your loving fiancée, Angela’, he presumes they must have a formal understanding. Angela greets Brendan with little more than a wan smile. Thereafter, she proves elusive, taking to her bed with a mysterious indisposition. For the kind-hearted Major, this is unpromising. He finds solace in the company of Sarah Devlin, the capricious daughter of a Catholic lawyer who is by turns teasing, cruel and affectionate. Recognizing the sterility of his engagement, and despite his growing feelings for Sarah, the Major sets out for England. But he is recalled by the news that Angela has died of leukaemia. He dutifully attends her funeral at the Majestic then escapes to London, where Sarah joins him for a brief romantic interlude. When she leaves, and having no family to detain him, the Major is irresistibly drawn back to the doubtful allure of the Majestic. Hotels are wonderful vehicles for novelists and film makers, enclosed places in which strangers can be made to interact and personal dramas can be explored. But the building itself is not always of great consequence. Not so here. In the Majestic, Farrell creates an almost living character whose accelerating decay echoes the loss of power and authority by just those people who were once its guests. In its heyday the hotel – with its ‘extraordinary proliferation of turrets and battlements and crenellated catwalks that hung from the building amid rusting iron balconies and French windows with drooping shutters’ – hosted hunt balls, carnivals and regattas. Now the once splendid Palm Court is a dark cavern whose foliage has run riot: ‘beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines’. The ‘green’ of Ireland is reclaiming the space on which the ruling authority once pitched its tent. The permanent residents by now comprise little more than a clutch of old ladies in varying stages of decrepitude. They are joined by Edward’s blind mother, his two mischievous daughters Miss Faith and Miss Charity, the lecherous Mr Norton – his sexual urges undimmed by his seventy years – and the cadaverous and sinister servant Murphy. A group of rowdy and drunken British Auxiliaries, bloated with contempt for the Irish, make occasional appearances to disturb the uneasy peace. An air of menace, mirroring the country’s brooding discontent, hangs over a monstrous tribe of semi-feral cats that patrol the Imperial bar and mate in smelly profusion. There is much comic potential here. The ladies querulously fuss among themselves, the adolescent twins behave in increasingly inappropriate ways and the benign Major tries to hold together this doomed and isolated island of Ascendancy. But in an instant, near slapstick can switch to horror. A marmalade cat with glittering green eyes is captivated by a stuffed pheasant topping the hat of old Miss Staveley:
Another guest stuns the cat with a vicious blow then, with ‘a savage rictus on his white pocked face’, hurls it across the room. It smacks against the wall and drops lifeless to the floor. This moment of domestic savagery echoes the wider civil unrest revealed in newspaper reports. Increasingly, these events impinge upon the enclosed world of the Majestic, shredding the Major’s already fragile nerves. ‘It seemed that the war which he thought he had escaped had pursued and caught him after all.’ In Dublin, he witnesses an assassination; local peasants burn Edward’s crops; sinister figures haunt the hotel’s environs; barracks are raided for arms; Edward’s beloved piglets, quartered in the hotel’s derelict squash court, are massacred. Kilnalough’s ancient Dr Ryan rouses himself from his habitual torpor to warn the Major: ‘This is no place for the likes of you . . . clear yourself out of here, bag and baggage, before it’s too late!’ As the air of menace thickens, Edward becomes increasingly unhinged. He places revolvers alongside the dinner table cutlery, leading one guest to wonder what is coming for dessert. Then on a whim he decides to recreate the Majestic’s vanished splendour by holding a magnificent spring ball for 200 guests. It will raise spirits and stiffen morale. First, he and the Major cleanse the hotel of the battalions of cats by shooting them in a bloody cull ‘as if it were a massacre of infants’. Then such rooms as are to be used are restored to their former glory. An orchestra, caterers and staff are hired; silver is brought out of dusty retirement to wink in the candlelight; linen-cloaked tables are laden with food. Just as in the old days, it is expected that guests will dance the hours away then linger in a state of happy exhaustion to enjoy a magnificent breakfast the following morning. So the chauffeur-driven cars purr up the drive to disgorge the wealthy and the privileged, ‘the face of Anglo Ireland, the inbred Protestant aristocracy’. But there are not enough young women present, and the ballroom soon empties. Edward is in a distracted mood, Faith and Charity disgrace themselves and the auxiliaries get disgustingly drunk, while the Major’s dark suspicions about Sarah’s relationship with Edward are vividly confirmed. Soon the guests, far from partying through the night, begin to drift away. This bungled, almost heroic, attempt to fly in the face of fate presages the dramatic and violent finale to which Farrell skilfully leads us. There is murder and there is madness. There is also an overwhelming feeling of sadness which stays with the reader long after the book is put down. It is perhaps what the Major calls the ‘bitter-sweet knowledge that nothing is invulnerable to change and decay, not even one’s most closely guarded memories’. Farrell, a perfectionist, was not entirely happy with Troubles. He should not have worried. Three months after its publication in October 1970, the book was awarded the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. (In an even greater posthumous tribute in 2010 it was awarded the Lost Man Booker Prize for the best full-length English novel of 1970.) But many would argue that Farrell’s best was yet to come. Two further articles on J. G. Farrell’s trilogy will follow in Issues 50 and 51.
At last tantalized beyond endurance the cat sprang from Mrs Rappaport’s lap, hurtled through the air in a horrid orange flash and pounced on Miss Staveley’s black velvet shoulders, sinking its hideous claws into the bird’s delicate plumage. Miss Staveley uttered a shriek and sank forward on to the card-table while the cat, precariously balanced on her shoulders, ripped and clawed savagely at her headgear in an explosion of feathers.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 49 © Patrick Welland 2016
About the contributor
Retiring from 36 years as a Fleet Street sub-editor, Patrick Welland invested in a huge chair in which to drink red wine and read books.