I read J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles last year and enjoyed it with reservations: or it might be more accurate to say that I enjoyed each of the pages individually, but just not so many of them one after another. Of course, as is my usual habit, I didn’t wait to read Troubles before picking up more of his stuff (well, those new covers were very seductive): namely his most famous novel, The Siege of Krishnapur. So I had it on my shelves already when it was named recently as one of the six Best of the Booker titles, and my piqued interest could be sated easily.
The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973. Maybe it’s because the 1970s seem neither recent nor long ago – or maybe it’s because 1973 was the year of my birth – but as a decade, I can’t think of many titles that spring to mind as classics or even favourites. (As always, I’m happy to be enlightened or reminded.) Maybe that’s why Farrell has fallen out of fashion. There’s nothing in the writing which explains it: if Louis de Bernieres can sell shedloads from a blend of historical fiction, black humour and crushing detail, then why not Farrell? But then de Bernieres has the inestimable advantage of being alive. While Gore Vidal described Truman Capote’s death as a “great career move,” more often once an author stops producing regular work, he is quickly forgotten. Farrell stopped more suddenly than most, dying in a boating accident at the age of 44.
The first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis, made of coarse flour and about the size and thickness of a biscuit; towards the end of February 1857, they swept the countryside like an epidemic.
The Siege of Krishnapur definitely seemed to me a more accomplished work than Troubles, and not just because, at 300 pages, it’s one third shorter. It has a more unified feel and greater direction, though the plot overall is similar and could be summed up as ‘motley bunch of Brits holed up in symbolically crumbling edifice while the natives get rebellious around them’.
These characters make The Siege of Krishnapur special. They may not get far beyond two dimensions, but their comic qualities are well defined. There’s the Magistrate (“Not everyone is improved by the job he does in life; some people are visibly disimproved”), who chairs a regular poetry group where he excoriates the local wives’ artistic efforts. There’s Dr McNab, “who was known to be in favour of some of the most alarmingly direct methods known to civilized medicine.” There is the Padre, an early proponent of Intelligent Design who pops up like Leonard Zelig at inopportune moments at the side of combatants in the siege (“Think how apt fins are to water, wings to air, how well the earth suits its inhabitants!”); and sundry racist, wastrel British officers:
When the bearer returned with a glass of champagne for Fleury, Rayne said loudly: ‘We call this lad “Ram”. That’s not his real name. His real name is Akbar or Mohammed or something like that. We call him Ram because he looks like one. And this is Monkey,’ he added as another bearer came in carrying a plate of biscuits. […]
Presently another servant came in bearing a box of cheroots; he was elderly and dignified, but exceedingly small, almost a midget.
‘What d’you call this blighter?’ asked Burlton.
‘Ant,’ said Rayne.
Burlton slapped his knee and abandoned himself to laughter.
The thematic focus of the book is the battle of ideas between two central characters: the Collector, who discovers the first wave of sinister chapatis and is (rightly) paranoid that they foretell bad tidings; and George Fleury, a young man as ineffectual as his name. The Collector is a rationalist (“The foundations on which the new men will build their lives are Faith, Science, Respectability, Geology, Mechanical Invention, Ventilation and Rotation of Crops!”) and Fleury a relativist (“The only real progress would be to make a man’s heart sensitive to love, to Nature, to his fellow man, to the spiritual world”). Farrell’s wit and irony are consistently in evidence, and every page seems to contain something worth stopping for.
As the old pensioner listened to the song, which was now accompanied by the ringing of bells, Fleury saw an expression of tender devotion come over his lined face, and he, too, thought, as the Collector had thought some weeks earlier in the tiger house, what a lot of Indian life was unavailable to the Englishman who came equipped with his own religion and habits. But of course, this was no time to start worrying about that sort of thing.
So with all these qualities, why didn’t I love The Siege of Krishnapur? I think it was, perhaps perversely, too much of a good thing. As with Troubles, the density is relentless, and largely delivered in the style almost of a summary. Normally I have little time for the creative writing class rule that writers should show not tell – if the writing’s good, who cares? – but that was a feeling I had throughout the book. There was too much detail and not enough immersion; and, because the tone was the same throughout – of an overview rather than a living, breathing story – the whole thing as a result felt like all build-up and not enough consummation. At times the book felt longer than the siege itself.
On the basis of Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, I can only say that Farrell is a maddening writer who delights me and frustrates me in equal measure; others no doubt will find a different balance, not least the Best of Booker judges who consider it one of the finest books to win the award. The other thing I can say is that it’ll be some time before I try the third in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, The Singapore Grip; all 600 pages of it. Troubles are one thing; bringing them on yourself is quite another.
I remember really enjoying this novel when I read it five or six years ago now, but it hasn’t stayed with me, and it didn’t tempt me to move onto his others. I do remember it being jolly good fun, though, with a nice satirical streak that wasn’t of the usual Raj-bashing order. (Random trivia: I read somewhere that this is Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite novel.)
As for novels of the 1970s: I’ve not read many, but Staying On by Paul Scott is a lovely novel; sad but comic, indignant yet dignified. It won the Booker in 1977, and like Farrell’s book it is set in India. It’s about an elderly English couple who, with nowhere now to call home, have stayed on in post-Independent India.
Oh thanks for reminding me of Staying On, Sam – I bought it a few months ago and thought of reading it as a ‘matching pair’ with The Siege of Krishnapur, then forgot all about it!
Jeremy Clarkson eh? I feel less bad about my reservations now.
I’m speaking up for Coetzee’s magnificent “Disgrace” to win the Booker of Bookers at a debate at the South Bank Centre in July … so I have to read this (it being one of the “best of Bookers” I’ve not already read).
And, John, mate, you’ve not convinced that I’m going to enjoy the experience!
Comic novels: pah!! (Well, aside from Sterne.)
Well I look forward to reading your thoughts on RSB or in coverage of the debate in due course Mark. I’ve read four of the Best of Booker books, and picked up The Conservationist from the Book Depository last week so will get through that before the results too. Not sure whether I should tackle The Ghost Road, as it’s the third in a trilogy I haven’t read the first two volumes of, or if I should reread Disgrace, Oscar and Lucinda and Midnight’s Children again to refresh my memory of them and provide a level comparison. On current recollections, my choice would probably be Disgrace too.
Well it is all about opinions. For me the best book on the BoB list is JG Farrell. Unfortunately the selection process seems to be flawed (just like Eurovision and I’d Do Anything!!). Why did they need a shortlist if it was then going to be open to the public vote? It all looks set up for another Rushdie victory. I am currently reading The Conservationist for the first time too and am finding it hard work. It is not likely to jump to the top of my list.
But at least Jeremy Clarkson has gone up in my opinion.
Thanks for visiting Andy. The whole public vote thing is a bit mystifying, isn’t it? Clearly they’re trying to make the whole thing more ‘inclusive’ or ‘relevant’ but even if you normally dislike the results of the annual Booker Prize, at least it’s not a popularity contest.
People seem likely to vote for Rushdie as, if they haven’t read any of the titles, they’ll recognise it as the one which is widely held to be a good ‘un. Frankly it’s so long since I read it that I can’t remember much about it other than finding it simultaneously impressive and tiresome – so my opinion is not worth much more. Short of setting a short quiz on each book to check that we’ve read them all before allowing us to vote, I can’t see how the Booker folk can hope to make the results anything other than random.
Bad news on The Conservationist – you may put me off it just as I am putting Mark off The Siege of Krishnapur! My other whine about the Best of Booker list is the absence of The Remains of the Day, which should have walked it.
And don’t get me onto I’d Do Anything, otherwise I’ll begin a rant about my fellow Belfaster Rachel’s unfair ejection at the weekend. And that wouldn’t do on a literary blog, now would it…
That’s been my thoughts about this Best of the Booker. The Booker Prize in recent years has come under fire for picking the most boring book from the shortlisted field. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss and Anne Enright’s The Gathering are testament to that. But to open up the public voting to all forty-one winners would inevitably lead to Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi storming it.
Oh, don’t be put off it. I’ve not read it, but I have read other Gordimers and once you get used to her ragged prose style, it flows.
Lovely review, as always John. I’ve not read Farrell’s novel yet but I’m working my way through the BoB list and will get around to this. I’m currently reading Disgrace and, while I wouldn’t want to pre-empt my opinion before finishing it, I must say that I’m really enjoying it. I’m quite surprised at how fast-paced it is as I usually expect a Booker-winning novel to be worthy but dull.
I’m also not too sure of the public vote thing and suspect that Rushdie will walk it. As you say, there’s no way of knowing if a voter has read all – or indeed any – of the books on the list. Both Farrell and Gordimer were, to my mind at least, surprise choices for the list and I’ll be interested to read ’em both.
I love Farrell’s novels (and I’m a fan of Gordimer too; I’d particularly recommend “Burger’s Daughter.” “The Singapore Grip” is a bit long I must confess but it is worth persevering with because it does develop the points made about imperialism in the first two books of the trilogy while adding some extra humour about bloated capitalism. Farrell has a lovely eye for the bizarre, a satirist’s anger at the evils of imperialism and also a sensitivity to the problems faced by the humans involved.
“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.”
What’s not to like?
BTW I’d vote for Midnight’s Children and I’ve read a good few of ’em. I’d also vote for Farrell’s “acceptance” speech of the Booker Prize as the top in the “bite the hand that feeds” category.
All the best
Thanks for your comments Richard. Yes, didn’t Farrell use his speech to rail against the imperialist-capitalist activities of the then Booker McConnell group? No need for gratitude now he’d won the award of course: as Sir Humphrey Appleby said in Yes, Prime Minister, “gratitude is merely a lively expectation of favours to come.”
As you may have spotted, I too loved the line about the cactus so much that I cited it in my review of Troubles. Good stuff. Perhaps one day, when I have time on my hands and no longer have a hungry blog to feed, I will take my time over The Singapore Grip.
I hope to read The Conservationist soon, and have also decided that I should after all read the Pat Barker trilogy, though I doubt I’ll get through to The Ghost Road by the time the Best of Booker winner is announced. I’ve also this hankering to revisit Disgrace. As always, so many books, so little time…
I recently read this work and I understand your misgivings. However, I think Farrell consciously developed a prose style (you refer to it as summary, overview, detail) designed to remove the reader from the action of the story; this, I suspect, is a narrative device for reinforcing the historical time and place. You will find The Singapore Grip much the same, only more so. I enjoyed The Siege of Krishnapur, but I wonder (having read your thoughts) if this was because I came to appreciate, after reading the Singapore Grip, how this rather disconnected prose style reinforces (or perhaps even provides) an underlying historicity.
Anyway, great blog!
Thanks Rolf – I’m sure you’re right in your observations. Nonetheless I would like to read something by Farrell which exhibits his wit and talent for the mot juste without that sense of distance. Perhaps one of his early novels (The Lung is the only one I can remember the name of) or his unfinished The Hill Station. If anyone has read any of these, please say!