Posts Tagged ‘Troubles’

Writers with confusingly similar names: J G Farrell

March 23, 2013

Disambiguation: one Farrell and two O’Farrells.  This post is about J G Farrell (also not to be confused with J G Ballard).

J G Farrell
His key novels, Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur are widely admired – and rightly so.    I first met Farrell through the latter – a wonderful story played out in the context of Imperial Britain in India.  You could compare it with A Passage to India in the depth of observation and the political engagement; or with Midnight’s Children for its sweep and sensitivity.  Like both of these it has  fine, readable prose.

This must be the hard-back cover.  My paperback shows the left-hand two thgirds of this image, with little sense of the buildings so tellingly outlined in the background here.

This must be the hard-back cover. My paperback shows the left-hand two thgirds of this image, with little sense of the buildings tellingly outlined in the background here.

It won the Booker in 1973: a novel to keep on your bookshelf for life – except when you lend it to a friend, or take it down to enjoy all over again.  There’s a passage from the ‘Siege’ below.

What a pity those old Penguins go so yellow, standing there, quietly loyal, over the years.  On inspection, I find that Krishnapur is also a book to give, and to steal.  My copy has an inscription:

I wonder who i gave it to?

I wonder who i gave it to?

I am so glad I stole it back.

Troubles is also terrific – set in Ireland during the – well, the Troubles.  It feels surreal, but in this situation that is a metapahor for reality, as Farrell displays the surreal qualities of being at war – of being involved in  a civil war.

This cover is modern - part of Penguin's set of retro styles.

This cover is modern – part of Penguin’s set of retro styles.

(That reminds me of the surreal, formal scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays – part 3 in particular – they, too,  find technical ways to render the bizarre nature of  a war which at its heart is waged against oneself.  I’m thinking in particular of the scene where a father kills his son, and a son has killed his father – all anonymous characters, within a play otherwise heavily loaded with meticulously named aristocracy.)

Somehow I couldn’t come to terms in the same way with the third volume in this colonial trilogy, The Singapore Grip – maybe I was being prudish about the sexual metaphor involved.  Now that I am seeing Farrell’s metaphors structurally, maybe I need to re-read it.


I open The Siege of Krishnapur at random – page 202 – the beginning of chapter 15 – and discover a characteristically nuanced paragraph.

Your sister, as a rule, can be relied on to remember when your birthday is; but when on the Monday evening Miriam and several other ladies and gentlemen gathered on the Residency verandah to sing hymns before retiring to bed Fleury could see no sign of awareness on his sister’s face that an unusual event was soon to occur.  She sang away unconcernedly, with great feeling: ‘O God our help in ages past . . .’  She had a beautiful voice and normally Fleury loved to hear her singing; but this evening he suspected she was putting it on for the Collector’s benefit.  The Collector, although not singing himself (for he had no voice), was leaning against the louvred wooden shutters in semi-darkness, listening.  Many members of the garrison were becoming a little perturbed about the Collector.  His face had taken on a more haggard look and he was sometimes heard to be muttering to himself . . . once or twice he had even been heard laughing to himself as he walked about; it was an uncomfortable laugh, and if he saw you looking at him he would stop immediately; his face would become stern and expressionless once more inside its cat-like ruff of whiskers.  There was no reason to make too much of this however . . . a man has to be allowed a few personal idiosyncracies, after all, and the Collector had done a splendid job so far.  All the same, the Collector was in complete command of the garrison and everything that happened in the enclave happened at his behest.  The siege, in a manner of speaking, was his idea.  It would be unfortunate, to put it mildly, if now or at some later stage he should collapse when so much depended on him.  So no wonder that people watched him rather uneasily.  Mind you, he was probably still as sound as a bell.  And it could hardly ne a bad thing that he had come to listen to the singing of hymns.   It was a pity that his face could not be seen more clearly in the shadows.

We appear to be experiencing this scene through the eyes and the slightly childish consciousness of Fleury: trivially bothered about his birthday.  His pouting Bertie Wooster-ish tone melds seamlessly into darker observations of the Collector.  Still in Fleury’s Boy’s Own diction (‘splendid’; ‘his idea’) the reader can see so much more deeply than Fleury can.  And thus the paragraph shows its complexity; shows how the Collector is viewed but also that the situation (and his own responsibility) are both much graver than others realise.  Events are already well out of his control, yet he will have to take responsibility for them.  The tragedy will unfold – he can see that it will – even while the families are living their gossipy English lives.

It’s this subtle step-by-step movement that makes Farrell’s writing powerful: building, building through the gentlest of insights towards the appalling truths that few (or perhaps only one) of the characters can comprehend.


As you can see, I was carried away by Farrell and didn’t get to any of the others.  I will – but it will take a little time.  I might have to do some reading first.

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