When I recently spotted a copy of J.G. Farrell's A Girl in the Head on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop (actually my favourite second-hand bookshop in all England - The Bookshop in Wirksworth), I bought it out of curiosity. Having recently reread Farrell's masterpiece, Troubles, I was interested to sample one of his earlier works.
A Girl in the Head was published in 1967, the last of three novels that preceded Troubles, and it attracted little acclaim, or even notice. It is a kind of black comedy set in a dreary English seaside resort, Maidenhair Bay, where one Boris Slattery, an ageing cynic and chancer, now lives, with various others, in the family home of his unhappy wife, Flower. Slattery - by his own account an aristocrat of middle-European descent - is on his uppers, and arrives in Maidenhair Bay by chance, having stepped off the train there on a whim. He has two overriding obsessions - himself, and a beautiful young Swedish girl who is coming to stay in the family home for the summer. In fact, Boris's eye for young and underage girls make for some pretty queasy reading; this unreliable narrator has none of the charm, wit or poetry of Humbert Humbert.
A Girl in the Head charts Boris's largely sordid, drink-sozzled life in Maidenhair Bay, and the devious machinations by which he attempts - and usually fails - to further his ends. He sometimes comes across as a kind of literary Ed Reardon, but is mostly less engaging even than that. His milieu - the small seaside town, the beach, the changing weather - is skilfully evoked, Farrell's strong sense of place showing through. Similarly the author's ingenuity in devising situations of excruciating physical embarrassment is often in evidence. But beyond that there is really nothing to suggest that the next time this author published a novel it would be one of the greatest of his time - Troubles.
To achieve that leap, to unleash his full creative power, he needed - as he was already sensing - a broader canvas, or rather a context of greater historical significance in which to place his hopelessly befuddled characters. Farrell was living in New York at the time of A Girl in the Head's publication, and reading up on the Irish War of Independence (of which his mother had some memories). He was also toying with various possible fictional scenarios, including a man trapped in an apartment building; a passive, possibly suicidal, Englishman abroad; a military widower with a teenage daughter; and a man battling with hordes of cockroaches (Farrell's hotel room was infested with these forerunners of the Majestic's cats in Troubles). Taking a break from his creative struggles, he took a boat to Block Island - and there he had his Eureka moment, looking around the spectacular remains of the burnt-out Ocean View Hotel, all twisted pipes, molten glass, charred beams, washbasins and blackened bedsprings. Yes, the very image of the burnt-out Majestic Hotel so vividly described in the opening pages of Troubles. Farrell had found his inspiration - the inspiration so sadly lacking in A Girl in the Head.
Odd, isn't it, how many of our best writers have found their true strength, or at least a new lease of life, by turning from the present to the historical past for their mise en scène? Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge being other obvious examples, not to mention Hilary Mantel...