JG Farrell classic 'Troubles' wins Lost Booker prize
The success of this lively 1970 classic shows the lasting allure of the Irish Big House novel
IRELAND MAY have degenerated into a banana republic run by inept shopkeepers but the allure of the Big House novel retains its appeal. The search for the Lost Man Booker, the finest novel published in 1970 but not considered for that year’s prize because of a change in the rules at that time, has ended with the award being presented to JG Farrell’s Troubles, which places the conventions of the Irish Big House novel within the wider context of the decline of the British Empire.
Farrell’s lively classic, set in a decaying Wexford hotel in the aftermath of the Great War and just as Sinn Féin is asserting itself, follows the adventures of a chivalrous young English man, Major Brendan Archer, intent on meeting a woman to whom he may have become engaged. It is the opening instalment of the Empire trilogy and has never been out of print. It held off a strong challenge which included Muriel Spark and The Vivisector, a masterwork by the Australian 1973 Nobel Laureate Patrick White.
Ultimately White’s caustic elegance yielded to the comic irony of Farrell who was to win the 1973 Booker Prize with The Siege of Krishnapur, which draws on the events of the Indian Mutiny and revealed extensive historical research.
Farrell pursued this theme of an empire in its death throes on an even more elevated, quasi-epic scale in The Singapore Grip(1978) which takes place against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion and predates JG Ballard’s remarkable Empire of the Sun.
Despite his name, James Gordon Farrell was an Englishman, born in Liverpool in 1935, the son of an accountant. Within a couple of months of entering Oxford University in 1956, disaster struck him. Farrell contracted polio. The experience inspired his second novel, The Lung, which was published two years after he had made his quiet debut, A Man from Elsewhere(1963). Set in France, its title reflected Farrell’s intense, restless nature. Girl in the Head(1967) saw Count Boris Slattery at a loose end in an English seaside town. Following the success of TroublesFarrell settled down in the role of professional novelist. In April 1979 he moved to Cork and was working on The Hill Station, in which the kindly Dr McNab, a character from The Siege of Krishnapur, reappears. That novel, which was published posthumously in 1981, was never finished. Farrell drowned in the sea off Bantry Bay, four months after moving to Ireland. Last year, an eye witness, Pauline Foley, recalled the event in a newspaper interview marking the 30th anniversary of the writer’s death. “He didn’t look frightened,” she said.
A heroic, old-style quality shapes his writing. In time-honoured Booker tradition, Farrell, who was also shortlisted for the Booker of Bookers, won the prize for an inferior work. The Siege of Krishnapur is good, but not the equal of Troubles. It is his best book and now, 40 years on, Troubleshas been celebrated, again. Farrell’s brother, Richard, accepted a bound copy of the novel at a presentation in London yesterday.