Farrell J.G.

J.G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur

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

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.

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.