J. G. Farrell: Troubles
?Hm? actually one of our guests wrote a sort of poem, you know, about how the place probably used to look in the old days. Lovely bit of work. Angela embroidered some of it for me on a cushion. I?ll show it to you later on. I think you?ll appreciate it.?
?I?m sure I shall,? agreed the Major.
The dog barked, doubtfully.
The English author J. G. Farrell is best known for his so-called Empire Trilogy, the centerpiece of which, The Siege of Krishnapur, won the Booker Prize in 1973 and was recently shortlisted for the ?Best of the Booker? ? though John Banville, in his introduction to the New York Review of Books edition (I have the introduction-free British paperback from Phoenix, but the NYRB helpfully prints Banville?s essay on their website), feels that the first of the trilogy, Troubles, ?is surely his masterpiece, and the book of his that is certain to endure.? J. G. Farrell died while fishing in county Cork in 1979, at the age of forty four.
The New York Review of Books reprints editions of out-of-print books, and that they have found it worthwhile to reprint Farrell?s trilogy is a credit to them and an indicator of how neglected the author is in the United States. Yet I imagine that people who happen across Troubles must be secretly grateful, as all great ?forgotten? books discovered and relished by readers have something of the sheen of buried treasure about them.
Troubles must have been an anomaly in 1973 ? there?s something quaint in its lack of postmodernist pyrotechnics, its patience, and its faith in the good old-fashioned unfolding of a story. It is a gentle comedy, almost slapstick (though the book doesn?t lack for dialogue there is something in the movements of the characters, of their errors and frustrations, and of their constant up-down-around the hotel, that caused me to think of them as being trapped in a silent film comedy), that never loses sight of the darkness closing around it like a fog.
The bulk of the book takes place in Ireland in the late teens and early twenties, though in the opening pages we are shown the Majestic, the old luxury hotel where events will take place in flashback, is nothing more now than a skeleton, having burned to the ground some years before, though
here and there among the foundations one might still find evidence of the Majestic?s former splendour: the great number of cast-iron bathtubs, for instance, which had tumbled from one blazing floor to another until they hit the earth; twisted bedframes also, some of them not yet altogether rusted away; and a simply prodigious number of basins and lavatory bowls.
And then back ? back to summer 1919, where after a stint in the hospital the Major arrives at the Majestic, which is already in an advanced state of neglect, to marry Angela, a girl he met on home leave from the war in 1916 and barely remembers:
Although he was sure 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 fianc?, 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 the candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.
The Major is a bit of a buffoon, and the story is of his frustrations with women. He comes to claim a bride who acts indifferent towards him, then there?s the feisty Irish lass, and he finds himself stuck in an amiable madhouse that he?s unable to quite break free of. His English reserve and obsession with courtesy is borderline caricature that is contrasted time and again with the Irish; his inability to take a firm stance becomes his undoing. War has left him a little out of it, and he finds himself slowly ? and, it seems, to his horror almost ? feeling sympathetic towards the ?terrorists.? But sympathy will not save him. It is only a matter of when the Major?s women troubles will recede and the violence and chaos, sprinkled generously as newspaper articles throughout the novel?s length, will take the fore. The author is patient. He carefully builds his house ? from the get-go an amiable farce that just happens to be set in times of nuisance ? and then, for the first but not the last time a quarter of the way through, pulls the tablecloth out from under and sends it crashing down.
But why write a book about the ?troubles? in Ireland at the beginning of the century in 1973? Perhaps Farrell saw a current example of a powerful nation attempting to dominate a weaker one and excusing the ruthlessness of its behavior by dismissing the oppressed as ?savages,? backwards, in dire need of rescuing and civilizing. Farrell was too much the artist to make any such comparisons overt, but I doubt he failed to see the parallels. The book?s accomplishment, however, is that it is not a treatise on the evils of colonialism, or a tediously ?political? book, but one that takes time to sketch characters and setting in fine detail. The absurdly decaying Majestic ? an old ghost that the vines are rapidly reclaiming, with chunks of the ceiling annoyingly falling off onto the desk in the study, its owner slowly going mad, the dusty old ladies that won?t ever leave, and the alarmingly multiplying cats commanding the upper floors ? is one of the great settings of modern literature. It is like the book itself: frequently hilarious and terribly sad. There is an element of lovingly recapturing a vanished world here, and the author is too generous to present any of the characters as truly hateful ? at worst, misguided and to be pitied ? but it?s obvious whose side he?s on. Troubles closes with a series of strange, hallucinogenic scenes until all that was there is no more, and we finally glimpse the Majestic as it was in the opening pages: as a burnt-out shell.
The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather, he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil. - Hermann Broch