October 2, 2007
J.G. Farrell: Troubles
A nice new cover and I’m anybody’s. Like a Glenn Patterson character, I have an inbuilt aversion to novels about the Northern Irish ‘troubles,’ so I had never even looked closely at J.G. Farrell’s novel of the same title. If I had, I would have seen that it’s in fact set back in 1919, when Irish independence was an ideology exploding into activity. And the rejacketing with the handsome cover below was all I needed to persuade me to pick it up. Yes, I am ashamed.
Troubles (1970) is the first of Farrell’s trilogy about the decline of the British Empire. In it, Major Brendan Archer, fresh from the Great War, travels to Kilnalough in Ireland to sort out his putative engagement to a girl called Angela whom he met on leave three years earlier. Her letters make it clear that they are to be married, but the Major himself cannot recall agreeing to this.
Indeed, the only other thing he recalled quite distinctly was saying goodbye to her at an afternoon thé dansant in a Brighton hotel. They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.
He stays in the Majestic hotel, owned by Angela’s father Edward Spencer, where the Major spends much of his time trying to locate his elusive fiancée. There he “surrender[s] to the country’s vast and narcotic inertia … the all-absorbing silence of the mild Irish night.” These nights are punctuated with long uncomfortable meals:
Once in the course of the meal a brief, querulous argument broke out at the other end of the room; someone complained that his private jar of pickles had been used without his consent…; but then silence returned, and once again the clinking of cutlery.
The Majestic is a crumbling, dilapidated hotel, clearly intended as an allegory for the British presence in the country. The ironic comedy of the book is peppered with newspaper reports and speeches about the fledgling armed struggle/terrorist campaign (depending on viewpoint) for an independent Ireland. To the English, the ‘Sinn Feiners’ are “not people at all [but] a species of game that one could shoot according to a very brief and complicated season (that is to say, when one caught them in the act of setting off bombs).” To the Irish, the British are indolent parasites, and it’s not hard to see which side Farrell falls on when he depicts the English in the hotel whiling away the days playing whist and golf while the countryside runs with blood around them. When they do consider the issues, they don’t get very far:
The Irish, as far as he knew, had always had a habit of making trouble. That was in the nature of things. As for the aim of their unruly behaviour, self-government for Ireland, that seemed quite absurd. What could be the advantage to the Irish themselves? They were so ill-educated that they could not possibly hope to gain anything from it. The English undoubtedly knew more about running the country.
In the comic passages, the obvious comparison is with Waugh both in style and subject matter, though Farrell has warmth in place of Waugh’s snobbery. The book is rich in quotable images, such as the visits to a sick patient by Dr Ryan, who had “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 to the top. The Major shook his head and hoped that it was not an emergency.
However, as far as comic novels about the English go, Troubles gives us too much of a good thing. At 450 pages, it’s hard to see how it could not have been cut to literally half the length with little loss of effect. Instead we have a couple of hundred pages too much of farcical goings-on between nymphomaniac twins, elderly residents and irascible owners. The build-up of tension in the countryside, which eventually strikes the hotel, does not compensate for this.
One recurring motif is a doctor who repeatedly reminds us that “people are insubstantial. They really do not ever last … They never last. A doctor should know. People never last.” Well, Troubles lasts and lasts and lasts. Toward the end the story does pick up, and the closing lines are quietly touching, though I am not sure if this was just because by then I was pleased to be seeing light at the end of the troubles. Plus, the quality of the writing throughout was not in doubt anyway: it’s just that there was so much of it.