Thursday, January 9, 2014

J.G. Farrell

An Anglo-Irish novelist 
who died young and really was all that

     Three years ago, the Man Booker Foundation was prompted to give an award to a book published in 1970 because that year the rules changed for the awards period.  The Booker is like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award
rolled into one.  Only the British would have forgotten to give an award (it would never have happened here) and then turned around four decades later to remember.  The book that waited forty years was Troubles by J.G. Farrell, who actually won on time in 1973 with The Siege of Krishnapur.  I saw the two bound as one in an Everyman’s Library edition – Everyman republishes classic and cutting edge works from the 19th through 21st centuries – at Joseph-Beth (of course).  

Dexter Exploring an East India Company Town
     The Siege of Krishnapur takes off from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 when sepoys, native Indian soldiers in the British army, turned on the Imperialist power and laid siege to a number of garrisons.  Krishnapur is a fictional garrison defending an East India Company town – basically the town and the garrison are interchangeable.  It’s a droll examination of the relationships between the panoply of British characters embodying the aphorism that ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire.’  Ugh, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase during prep school in the ‘70s uttered by people who couldn’t believe the sun had moved on to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

     Siege feels like something Kipling might have collaborated on with Monty Python.  As the siege continues over months, the various western cultural materialistic possessions of these citizens provide very different usages than originally intended.  The Collector (sort of a governor) worships his memory of The Great Exhibition of 1851 and that sense of British patronizing destiny and stiff upper-lip attitude are undercut grotesquely and hilariously as the story progresses.  The situation feels like an incubator for Darwin’s evolutionary theory.  Farrell plays the generations off of each other, especially in the diagnostic and treatment approaches of the two doctors.  Dr. McNab turns out to be the hero in retrospect because of his patience, cool-headedness, and overall competence.  He’s the 20th century character quietly stuck in a 19th
century framework.  The coda also reveals what happened to the surviving characters years later, but it neglects the Magistrate (akin to a lieutenant governor), who expresses the attitudes of a Bolshevik precursor.

The Crumbling Resort Hotel in Ireland
     While Siege is a rip-snorting, dark comic adventure, Troubles is a great, peculiarly sad romance with some wild absurdity and I kept wondering why I’d never heard of it earlier.  It’s set in Ireland from 1919 – 1921.  An English Major, Brendan Archer, arrives at the crumbling Majestic, a very past its prime resort hotel, on the Irish coast, to meet Angela to whom he was quickly engaged during a short leave from the front.  He doesn’t know much about her and what little he did is quickly thrown out by a situation that feels at first like P.G. Wodehouse by way of Fawlty Towers, though it preceded that iconic show by five years. 

     However, everything works on a symbolic level because the Majestic stands in for the British Empire, its owner Edward Spencer embodies the Tory Empire establishment, and the Major represents the compassionate, sensible British that cannot let go of Ireland even as he knows there is no reason to stay.  He’s not a good guy either because he turns a blind eye to some of the dreadful behavior that the Anglo-Irish display and, though he empathizes with the Irish Republicans, he doesn’t actively support them.  The persecuted Other is not as directly combative as in Siege, but Farrell uses a pastiche of newspaper clippings from around the world to place the Majestic in a much larger geopolitical context. 

     There are a couple of bizarre characters and one horrifying plot twist that underlines the English getting away with whatever they like in their colonies.  Sarah, the doctor’s daughter, is the romantic interest, but she starts off as a perverse, possibly disabled young woman, who is as mutable as the mood of the Irish Republicans.  She’s Ireland in all its glory and despair.  The formal party of the climax feels like the last gasp of a culture burning itself out.  I still wondered by the end why the English wanted to stay in Ireland.  My Dad always thought it was because they needed Belfast as a port city, but that seemed even more out of touch and somehow appropriate.

J.G. Farrell
     It took me a while to read Troubles, partly because I didn’t want to let go of how well Farrell wrote technically.  His sentence and paragraph structure are almost textbook perfect and his irony can be wry or quietly enraged.  In both books, the characters are simultaneously realistic and grotesque.  There’s hilarity and pensiveness throughout and a feeling of something really big about to happen.  
     The sad postscript is that Farrell died while angling on the coast of Ireland, falling off a rock during a storm.  Though a jock as a young man, he contracted polio and its after-effects may have left him too weak to fight against the water.  However, he left behind these two amazing novels.

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