Saturday, 4 April 2015

Farrell's Troubles: Lost and Found

Recently I was chatting of this and that with Bryan when the subject of J.G. Farrell came up. Is he still read, we wondered (in the manner of the Marsh-Marlowe Letters). He was good, we recalled - God, he was really good. Shame if he's on his way to becoming a forgotten writer - he was far too good for that. The Siege of Krishnapur, The Singapore Grip, Troubles - especially Troubles...
  Sure enough, a week or so later I was browsing in a charity shop and there it was on the bookshelves, giving me the glad eye - Troubles! A Flamingo paperback edition from 1984 (original publication was 1970 - this was the first of Farrell's 'Empire trilogy'). Reader, I bought it. Reader, I have read it. Reader, I was not sorry - I have loved it all over again, just as I did when I first read it back in the 70s.
 Troubles chronicles the experiences of Major Brendan Archer, coming out of the Army after the 1914 war and travelling to rural Ireland, to the crumbling Majestic Hotel, owned by the family of a girl to whom he somehow got engaged while on leave three years ago. Since then, their relationship (if that's the word) has been sustained by a string of bewilderingly detailed and impersonal letters from her - and things become no less bewildering, on all fronts and in every way, when the Major arrives at The Majestic, a once grand establishment that now barely functions as a hotel and is populated mostly by dotty old ladies with nowhere else to go.
 The Major is an upright, conventional, faintly absurd character, often ineffectual, always an easy prey for any woman who cares to run rings around him. Over the next three years or so, the Major (who also has nowhere much else to go) finds himself unable to tear himself away from the decaying hotel and its mystifying ways. He falls in love and is duly run rings around. He frets about the state of the hotel and the troubling developments in Ireland that he reads about in the papers. The building, already in a bad way, becomes increasingly decayed and uninhabitable, while the locals become restive and 'troubles' begin to break out - small things at first, but building up...
 This is a long novel - a full 450 pages - but it is extraordinarily readable, largely (I think) because it never descends into solemnity, despite its darker themes, but retains a sparkling, unpredictable brightness. The Major is a likeable, strangely compelling character, and Farrell clearly has a magical gift for storytelling. This is a real page-turner, it is very funny - often laugh-aloud funny - and it is, I think, something very like a great novel, a classic.
 Happily, I discovered after my re-reading that Troubles had not been forgotten but was awarded the once-only Lost Booker Prize, for novels written in the 'lost' period of 1970 when the Booker changed its criteria and its timing. The judges were surprisingly - and rightly - unanimous that it had to be Troubles. Sadly, Farrell himself, at the height of his powers and aged just 44, died in 1979, swept out to sea while fishing in Bantry Bay. Heaven knows what he might have achieved had he lived longer. But what he left behind - the Empire Trilogy at least - is amazing stuff and should never be forgotten. If you haven't had the pleasure, read him; if you have, reread him.

1 comment:

  1. Re-reading the Empire Trilogy regularly has kept me busy for - well, about 35 years. They are gloriously comic yet filled with bitter-sweet melancholy. Wonderful stuff.