Laureate of a declining empire
JG Farrell was becoming a legend in his lifetime, and this newly expanded biography tries to track the legend down.
JG Farrell: The Making of a Writer
Cork University Press
‘The voyagers we cannot follow / are the most haunting . . .” I wrote some years ago, on glimpsing Beckett in the Luxembourg Gardens, in Paris. In the 1960s and 1970s I began to hear of a brilliant young novelist of possibly Irish background, called JG Farrell. Opinions about his character varied wildly, some contending that he had a sardonic wit, perhaps a legacy from being crippled by polio. While others praised his hospitality, his love of wine and his cooking. He was becoming a legend in his lifetime, and this newly expanded biography tries to track the legend down.
How did Farrell become the laureate of a declining empire? The story begins with a shipboard romance between his Bengal-based father (Bill Farrell, an Englishman despite the name) and his Irish mother, Prudence Russell. Lavinia Greacen, in this expanded edition of a biography first published in 1999, elegantly suggests how their circumstances were a microcosm of Ireland in the context of empire: “As they played quoits together . . . it became plain that there was an inverse symmetry in their family histories. In the swirling crosscurrents of the 19th century the moves of the Farrells had directly counterbalanced those of the Russells.
“The Quaker O’Farrells had emigrated via Sligo in Liverpool . . . Meanwhile the Russells had Liverpool to Ireland. Irony makes its first appearance here. The Russells . . . saw themselves as Irish and lived in Ireland . . . while the Farrells, who saw themselves exclusively as English, had the Irish name” (though, significantly perhaps, they had dropped the O). But both his parents had “a definite sense of British power unravelling”.
In his early life, however, Farrell seems to have been an almost model English schoolboy. At his first school, Terra Nova in Cheshire, he became head of school as well as captaining the first teams in rugby and cricket. But his rugby career was interrupted by the family’s postwar move to Dublin. Not only was he displeased by this disruption; he took a scunner against Dublin, although their new home was in Beckett country, along the Harcourt Street line, and he would find a new circle of family and friends. Nevertheless, he speaks with adolescent fury of “that granite mass of grey depression they call the Bank of Ireland . . . The dirty neon misery of O’Connell Street”.
Marking time before Oxford, Farrell went to Canada, where he took a job on the Dew, or Distant Early Warning radar system. His description of his days in the Arctic is as thrilling as a boys’ adventure story, but did that strenuous life harm him? When he resumed rugby at Oxford, where he was reading law at Brasenose, he was hurt so badly he was carried off the field and into hospital, where he was diagnosed with polio. Not only would he never play rugby again; he would be disabled physically, and perhaps also emotionally, for the rest of his life.
Greacen’s technique is to blend her narrative with Farrell’s own words, extracted from his novels and presented in italics. Sometimes this slows down the story, but the description of his period in the iron lung, when he was stricken with polio, is as chilling as Poe. And Greacen renders it even more poignant by threading passages from his novel The Lung through her account, as when he was “as horizontal and as petrified as a stone crusader”. Obviously, this ordeal turned his life around: “It was during my long stay in hospital that I started writing.”
But there were many hesitations and false starts. Like myself, he lived through the Algerian war in France, which reminded him of Ireland: “Colonial disengagement everywhere.” Also like myself, he did not enjoy Yale. When he was there as a Harkness scholar in drama, “He took against it as a Wasp enclave . . . unimpressed by the gothic resemblances to Oxford . . . and he recoiled from anti-Semitic jokes and the unrepresentative ratio on campus of blacks and homosexuals”.
This book is not a critical study, so while we applaud the slow but definite growth of the almost Shakespearean imperial theme in Farrell’s trilogy (Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip), it was not the main concern of his life. Perhaps the betrayal of his body by polio also afflicted his spirit, making him yearn for companionship while at the same time being unable to trust.
Thus the theme of his life, if not his work, was what Francis Stuart called “the search for love”, a theme movingly explored in this volume, although sometimes Greacen’s sympathy with her subject comes uncomfortably close to ventriloquism.
Farrell was like catnip to the ladies, perhaps because, in addition to admiring them, he spoke to them seriously as friends and colleagues, although this was not true when he was a young rugby player and grew tongue-tied in their presence. His memorial service in Fleet Street was attended by “rank upon rank of stylish women, of whom a large proportion was in tears . . . the best-looking women in publishing”, including Beryl Bainbridge, the costive Olivia Manning, Hilary Spurling and Margaret Drabble, who has written a novel, The Gates of Ivory, in which the hero, Stephen Cox, is based on Farrell. However, Claire Tomalin concluded that he “preferred fantasy and flirtation to any serious involvement”. As he said to her, “Everything would be all right between us if you were a milkmaid and I were a shepherd.” And he also rebuked her for allowing herself “to become dependent on anyone”.
An astonishing fantasy come true was his friendship with “his own call girl or ‘part-time whore’, as she referred to herself”. She professed to love “the game”, and her clients were various: “One eminent judge paid to be undressed and put to bed as a baby, complete with nappy and dummy.” But her relations with Farrell were tender: “He was so easy, so sensitive . . . I manicured his hands and pedicured his feet . . . and he used to paint my toenails.” And all this was against the background of the Profumo affair, reminding me of the days when Christine Keeler (a shy girl!) and Mandy Rice-Davies sauntered through Dublin.
Considering the elegance of Farrell’s prose, it is surprising that there were so few poets among his friends. Perhaps the major one was Derek Mahon, who did a profile of him for British Vogue, accompanied by a portrait by Snowdon, in which Farrell slouches against a window between two cats like bookends. Mahon also dedicated his haunting lament A Disused Shed in Co Wexford to a “greatly touched” Farrell. (Although I was surprised to learn from Greacen that the poem was “inspired less by Troubles than by a passage in The Lung”.)
Mahon contributes a foreword to this volume, where he sums up Farrell as a balance of contraries: “Ascetic epicurean, gregarious solitary, aristocrat of the spirit.” Visiting Farrell’s Kilcrohane home after his death by drowning, and registering the “Buddhist texts” there, Mahon makes a healing suggestion that “his early brush with death and subsequent singularity had developed in him a mystical strain, one which expressed itself in impatience with London and withdrawal to the silence of west Cork . . . to make his soul”.
More prosaically, I think Farrell moved to Ireland also because of the artists’ tax exemption, which he found very enlightened. He bought an old farmhouse, overlooking Bantry Bay, “on the side of a hill locally known as Letter Mountain”. Meanwhile, I was buying a cottage between Ballydehob and Schull, in the townland of Letter. We could easily have met, and I still entertain a fantasy that as an old farm boy I could have warned him against fishing in wellies, which easily get waterlogged.
This is an intelligent book, partly a lament for a fine writer whose life was cut short, leaving one to wonder what he might have done from his new west Cork base.