Friday, 30 November 2012

J.G. Farrell's "Troubles" is one of the greatest - and funniest - novels I've ever read. Genius!

J.G. Farrell
I’ve just finished reading Troubles, a 1970 novel by J.G. Farrell, set in and around a vast, crumbling hotel on the Wexford coast in the years immediately after the First World War, when Britain’s hold on Ireland was rapidly weakening. It is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read – a genuine serio-comic masterpiece. I bought it in 1977 or thereabouts, so it's only taken me 35 years to complete it.

The problem was that I first tried to read it after completing the author's The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker Prize in 1974, which I adored.  But when I first tried to read Troubles, which had been published in 1970, the tone was so much more comic than it's successor that I was disconcerted. As London was under seige by the IRA 1970s, I may not have felt much like chuckling at tales of the original Troubles. Whatever, the reason, I couldn't get on with the book at all. An attempt to tackle it once more about ten years later also failed.

But then Troubles was awarded the retrospective Lost Man Booker Prize on a public vote in 2010 (a rule change at the time of its original publication in 1970 meant that books released that year weren't eligible for consideration), and my wife's book group read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give it another go. Glad I did. It is breathtakingly brilliant.

The main character is the Major, who has been invalided out of the army after suffering from shell-shock. Affectless and still stunned his war-time experiences, he turns up at The Majestic, a vast, crumbling, once-fashionable hotel in County Wicklow, whose clientele consists mainly of old English ladies who've been there for years, and have nowhere else to go. Most of them have given up paying their bills. The country round about is peopled by minatory, truculent, resentful peasants who want the English - who appear to be in ireland merely out of habit - to bugger off home. The Major finds himself engaged to the eldest daughter of the fierce Anglo-irish protestant proprietor of the hotel (although he can't actually remember ever proposing to her). But she seems wan and distracted and retired to her room for weeks on end, eventually dying of leukemia. The Major finds himself surrendering to the country's "vast and narcotic inertia" and, like the party guests in Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, finds himself unable to leave.

Audio Book extract 

Rather than wriote an endless adulatory review of this marvellous novel, I'll simply quote
some of my favourite bits .
Although he was sure that he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged: a certainty fostered by the fact that from the very beginning she had signed her letters 'Your loving fiancée, Angela'. This had surprised him at first. But, with the odour of death drifting into the dug-out in which he scratched out his replies by the light of a candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.

       …Murphy once more appeared out of the jungle like some weary, breathless gorilla, pushing the tea-trolley.

'My dogs,' Edward said with simplicity. 'Aren’t they beauties? Mind where you walk.'
'Planted by my dear wife.' After a moment, as if to clear up a possible misunderstanding, he added: 'Before she died.'
…Dr Ryan, however alert his mind, had to cope with a body so old and worn out as to be scarcely animate. Watching him climb the stairs towards his patient was like watching the hands of a clock: he moved so slowly that he might not have been moving at all. One day the Major saw him on his way upstairs, clinging to the banister as a snail clings to the bark of a tree. After he had smoked a cigarette and glanced through the newspaper he happened to pass through the foyer again and there was the doctor, still clinging to the banister and still apparently not moving, but nevertheless much nearer the top. The Major shook his head and hoped that it was not an emergency.

As for baldly asking a lady to pay her bill, he would as soon have committed sodomy.

 …that mixture of resentment and admiration one feels as one watches trapeze artists sailing dangerously here and there under the circus roof.


…Mrs Rappaport’s marmalade cat, sitting on its stool and staring him down with expressionless, acid eyes.

 'The Turkish Baths might present us with a tiny bit of a problem, actually. We did try  to get them going again some years back but it was a disaster. The boilers suddenly went haywire and before anyone knew what was happening half a dozen guests had suffered heat prostration… Had to be carried out, poached like lobsters…'


’Bring the dogs in from the yard and quarter them in the upper storeys… that’ll get rid of the bloody cats!’ Well, they had tried this, of course. But it had been a complete failure. The dogs had stood about uncomfortably in little groups, making little effort to chase the cats but defecating enormously on the carpets.

Despite the extraordinary deftness of the comic writing, Troubles is essentially a deeply serious, beautifully constructed novel in which every character - human or animal - and every incident vibrates with multiple layers of meaning. Here, the proprietor's faithful old dog, Rover - a symbol of England's post-war confusion and exhaustion (his very name a rebuke to the English for their lack of imagination) - is menaced by the innumerable, rapidly-breeding, semi-feral cats who've infested the hotel (a symbol, obviously, of the Irish peasantry, in case you were in any doubt):
Like the Major, Rover had always enjoyed trotting from one room to another, prowling the corridors on this floor or that. But now, whenever he ventured up the stairs to nose around the upper storeys, as likely as not he would be set upon by an implacable horde of cats and chased up and down the corridors to the brink of exhaustion. More than once the Major found him, wheezing and spent, tumbling in terror down a flight of stairs from some shadowy menace on the landing above. Soon he got into the habit of growling whenever he saw a shadow… then, as the shadows gathered with his progressively failing sight, he would rouse himself and bark fearfully even in the broadest of daylight, gripped by remorseless nightmares. Day by day, no matter how wide he opened his eyes, the cat-filled darkness continued to creep a little closer.
Lord, that's good!

John Gordon Farrell, who was of Anglo-Irish ancestry, was born in LIverpool. He studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he contracted polio. In 1979, he quit England to live in Ireland, only to die in a fishing accident a few months later. He was 44. Having read his two most celebrated novels, I'm certain he was one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century. 


  1. Superb post, Scott. Farrell's main theme, the follies of Empire, is beautifully explored in The Singapore Grip. However, Farrell, like many writers on Colonialism, confused Empire with Imperial Presence.

    Colonialism, in its purest form, requires a White settler majority in a former Native - controlled territory while the overlay of Imperial Presence, Malaysia being a prime example , reflects Imperial political and economic control without race - replacement of the Natives.

    Farrell's The Singapore Grip missed a golden opportunity to illustrate the Colonial anomaly created on that island by the mass immigration, not of the Empire's Britons, but of the Chinese, a situation which left the hapless Malays as a tiny minority and the Chinese as the true colonists.

    1. Thanks, Colin.

      I may be being slow on the uptake, but that would mean that only country or territory where England practiced what you call pure colonialism was America? (And I'm not sure - in terms of replacing the native population - that that was even true in 1776, after which, of course, it stopped being a colony at all.)

  2. I should have written "Farrell, like many writers on Empire, confused Colonialism with Imperial Presence."


  3. Well, Scott, White - settler countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand would also be included as Colonies in the purist sense.

    Also, countries (which, like the aforementioned places, were not, of course, actually countries in the political sense prior to Imperial Presence) such as Singapore, Malaysia and those in much of Sub - Saharan Africa should not, for the sake of clarity, attract a similar designation.

    The dichotomy between full blown Colonialism and Imperial Presence may be seen in the considerable difference in the lives and prospects of the Australian Aborigine and the Malaysian Malay both during and after British intervention.

    Slow on the uptake? Yeah, about as slow as Sgt Bilko .

    1. Of course! Total brain-cramp. If I were quick on the uptake, I'd have figured that out without help! More Col. hall than Sgt Bilko, to be frank.

      So, you're saying that full-blown colonialism is disastrous for the native peoples, while Imperial Presence isn't necessarily?

  4. "a similar designation to that of the above." should have ended the sentence. Sorry.

  5. I suppose it depends on which country's Imperial Presence is considered.

    For example, the sharp contrast between the British Malaya which was run by generally decent fellows from ancient public schools who had Oxbridge (horrible word but nevertheless stet ) degrees in Literae Humaniores, and the Malaya run by the conquering Japanese Imperial administration was painfully evident to the natives of that territory and especially so to those Malayan civilians who were summarily beaten for failing to salute a Japanese officer who happened to be walking past.

    The indigenous people of White - settler, former Colonies like Australia and New Zealand, have experienced material improvements in various aspects of their lives.

    However, their struggle with modernity and the considerable group average cognitive gap between them and the White community has led to the sort of disparity of outcome which, though inevitable, is seen by Leftists as eminently amenable to useless Marxist nostrums.