Monday, March 18, 2013

Portraits of the Artists 6: J. G. Farrell

J. G. Farrell

An edited version of this profile of J. G. Farrell appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 17 March 2013.

On the 11 August 1979 the writer J. G. Farrell slipped from a rock while fishing in a remote cove on the Sheep's Head peninsula.  Improbably, for such an isolated spot, the accident was witnessed by a local woman.  She remarked on the absence of any visible struggle.  His withered right arm and cumbersome wellington boots were no doubt factors as he disappeared quickly beneath the choppy waters.  Derek Mahon remarked on Farrell's interest in Buddhism.  He saw his withdrawal to the silence of west Cork as the wise man growing weary of the world - empty of desire he becomes free.  While posterity for Farrell could be said to have begun with a flurry of  retrospective Booker recognition in 2008, Lavinia Greacen's absorbing biography J.G. Farrell - The Making of a Writer (recently updated) should help to secure his reputation as one of the leading writers of English fiction in the 20th century.   Along with her J. G. Farrell In His Own Words - Selected Letters and Diaries published in 2009, it provides a perceptive and well-rounded portrait of a driven and complex individual who let nothing get in the way of his determination to be a successful writer.

It's a tasty irony that Farrell owes much of his current popularity to the Booker prize.  An irony that most sardonic of men would have relished.  He won the prize in 1973 for the Siege of Krishnapur.  At the award ceremony Farrell's famous refrigerated poise deserted him.  According to Greacen "Jim had a go at privilege, public schools and the Royal Family before turning to overpaid chairmen and executives, and finally rounding on Booker's exploitation of low-paid workers".  While his diatribe would probably resonate better these days, at the time it was regarded as poor form - biting the hand that fed him and other impecunious authors.  And, unlike John Berger, another Booker hand-biter, Farrell kept the money.  His reputation fell into abeyance after his death in 1979.  This may in part have been because of his Anglo-Irish origins.  The Brits think him Irish, and the Irish see him as British - so neither country claimed his legacy.  Arthur Koestler had a similar identity problem with his British/Hungarian origins.  However the Booker committee came to his rescue - twice.  In 2008 the Booker of Bookers competition selected the Siege of Krishnapur on a short list of six.  Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children eventually won the prize but the attendant publicity revived interest in Farrell.  And this was followed up by Farrell's Troubles winning the ''lost' Booker prize in 2010, for novels published in 1970, the year no prize was awarded because of a change in the qualification rules.

Greacen's book chronicles the growth of the fledgling author of some juvenilia and an  autobiographical novel (The Lung)  into the mature and assured creator of Troubles, The Siege of  Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip.  The book's strength lies in the way it brings to life Farrell's ruefully fatalistic but formidably independent personality as well as charting his development as a writer.  She uses interviews with a host of family, friends, colleagues, and lovers along with access to diaries and letters, to paint a compelling picture of a fascinating but not always likeable man.  She's particularly good on the writer's early years in Dublin.  His later success with the opposite sex was definitely not prefigured by his romantic skirmishes around Dalkey.

Perhaps the seminal moment in his genesis as a writer came shortly after he went to Oxford.  Studying Law and on his way to winning a blue at rugby, he was struck down with polio.  Within a short period the sturdy and extrovert athlete was turned into a frail and resentful invalid.  This event blighted his life - he never fully recovered the use of his right arm and was permanently debilitated.  A piquancy was added to his suffering by the successful athletics career of his cousin Tom Farrell who had just participated in the Melbourne Olympics.  In a creepy dress-rehearsal for his death, this once robust young man had to be rescued by friends as he struggled in the sea while on holiday in Acapulco.  His affliction also turned him into a writer.  He claimed that it was during his long stay in hospital "that I started writing and doing some thinking."  His convalescence lasted nearly two years and that period formed the basis for his novel The Lung which described the horror of being incarcerated in an iron lung for lengthy periods.  While Farrell's personality was already tinged with melancholy, this event exacerbated this trait.  His description of his polio ordeal centred on his struggle to breathe - providing another chilling harbinger of his eventual fate in the icy waters of Bantry Bay.

Anglo-Irish seems such an outmoded term - we're all Europeans now.  But if ever a writer seems to warrant that description it's Farrell.  His father was English with Irish antecedents and his mother was Irish with English antecedents. He was born in England, lived and worked in both countries, and died in Ireland.  His great theme was the decline of the British Empire which he first chronicled in Troubles, a novel set in Ireland during the War of Independence.   Yet the term doesn't apply to Farrell - he is very much a European writer.  While he admired Malcolm Lowry and Saul Bellow,  a lot of his reading was in French - initially Proust followed by an immersion in Sartre and Camus.  He was a fluent French speaker and taught for a period in Paris.  His interest in matters colonial was sharpened by being in France during the Algerian War of independence and by an illuminating visit to Morocco.  He brought a very modern sensibility to the historical events in his novels.  As Elizabeth Bowen, referring to Troubles, said:  "he had captured yesterday reflected in today's consciousness".  His only literary connection with Ireland, apart from a love of Beckett, was the poet Derek Mahon who was a friend.

Greacen is clearly smitten with her subject but this book is far removed from hagiography.  Her admiration for him doesn't preclude a full account of his many flaws and foibles.  The book devotes a lot of space to chronicling how badly Farrell treated the many women in his life. Described as "tall and slender and possessed of a slightly jaded and even sinister elegance", he was clearly attractive to women.  He in turn pursued them avidly, but never as far as the altar.  He had no interest in marriage or long-term commitment.  All enemies of promise were banished.  He cast a cold eye on life:  "The human condition - we all have my sympathy."  He was honest - making clear to his many girl friends the limits of their relationship.  This didn't seem to deter them.   His memorial service in London was remarkable for the number of attractive women gathered together.  In a 1970 letter to Bridget O'Toole, the only woman he even considered marrying, Farrell warned her to join him soon or "your mustard may be flavouring the victuals of one of my numerous other women.  From where I sit I can see them herded resentfully on the cobbles below, waiting for a glimpse". His womanising had a certain desperation about it that reminds you of Chekov - another sick man grabbing at life.

While his many admirers included such literary lionesses as Claire Tomalin, Hilary Spurling, Margaret Drabble, Alison Lurie, and Olivia Manning, he preferred to bed young literary ingenues or women on the fringes of the art scene.  The academic O'Toole was the nearest he came to boxing at his own weight.  Many of these young lovers were humiliated when it came to performing at the dinner parties he loved to host.  Anyone who lowered the mental temperature was subject to summary relegation.  Greacen doesn't try to conceal the occasional fall from grace.  When rebuked by a friend for taking his parents charity for granted his rejoinder was "it's a bonus for them to have a novelist as a son".

A curious feature of his story was his long-term relationship with a call girl (or "part-time whore" as she termed herself) which continued for a good portion of his time in London.  It was more friendly than carnal - although it had its sexual moments.  She was friendly with Christine Keeler and provided Farrell with an entree into a world far removed from Oxbridge and literature.  It gave him an insight into the hidden lives of prominent men - the client who liked to be dressed as a baby and other sexual foibles.  Her customers included judges, barristers, gangsters and Tory politicians (it strikes me that one person could be all of these).  She also vetted his girl-friends in a sisterly fashion.  When she eventually married he was the best man.  She even showed up at his memorial service in London.  A sensual and practical woman, she became the model for Lucy Hughes in The Siege of Krishnapur.

Farrell was a long time supporter of the Labour Party and, notwithstanding his Oxbridge background and elitist tendencies, he frequently spoke out for the less well off.  His Booker Prize outburst came from deep convictions.  He followed up his polemic by focusing a beady-eye on the economics and morality of colonialism in his next book The Singapore Grip.

For those new to Farrell, the best starting place is Troubles, described by many as his masterpiece.  The Majestic Hotel at the centre of the novel is a microcosm of Ascendancy Ireland, with the nationalists on the outside, like the Mahdi's forces surrounding Khartoum in his next novel The Siege of Krishnapur.  A parallel noted by Hugh Leonard who was also an admirer.

There is always speculation about those who die in mid-career.  John Banville suggested at a symposium on Farrell a couple of years ago that he had died at the right time - lacking, he asserted, the wells of passion within to augment his initial creative burst.  This seems poor judgement by one considerable writer of another.  Farrell worked hard at his craft, researching diligently, visiting the varied locales (including India and Nepal), and above all observing and recreating the foibles of his fellow man.  These traits surely equipped him for a long and fruitful career.  Unfortunately his bleak view of the human condition was confirmed by his absurd and untimely death on that August day near Kilcrohane.

Cork University Press
412 pages
RRP: €25
John P. O'Sullivan