LOST MAN BOOKER PRIZE
Looking back at the Lost Booker: Troubles by JG Farrell
The Lost Booker prize has brought Troubles, JG Farrell's great novel on crumbling empire, back into the spotlight - and not before time
"There's no avoiding it. JG Farrell was a genius."
Thu 15 Apr 2010
Given that JG Farrell denounced the Booker organisation when they gave him the prize for The Siege Of Krishnapur in 1973, it would be interesting to hear what he'd have to say about the inclusion of Troubles on the Lost Booker shortlist. Alas, we'll never know. But it is at least safe to say that in the last few years his posthumous fame has received a real boost, thanks to Booker. And for that, the organisation should be praised.
Troubles (originally published in 1970) follows a young man, Major Brendan Archer, who travels to Ireland to see his fiancee after serving in the trenches in the first world war. She dies, which rather scuppers the wedding plans, but the Major lingers. He has fallen under the spell of her home, the once-majestic Majestic hotel, her father (the "perfectly splendid old Tory" boor Edward) and another unsuitable woman called Sarah from the town nearby.
The Majestic is crumbling just as surely as the rule of the British empire in Ireland. Inside are countless inconveniences related to the hotel's eccentric plumbing, insecure floorboards, and cat-plagued lobbies. Out in the world, there are atrocities, a starving and correspondingly unhappy local populace and brutal police. Edward grows steadily madder and more murderous. Whole wings of the hotel disappear in storms ("slates blowing away into the swirling rain, free as petals"). Yet still the Major clings on, tending to the old ladies who are the hotel's last few residents, battling the cats and his own demons.
When asked why he wrote historical novels, Farrell said: "History leaves so much out … everything to do with the senses, for instance. And it leaves out the most important thing of all: the detail of what being alive is like." On these terms, Troubles is a resounding success. The dilapidated grandeur of the Victorian hotel stands as a fine metaphor for the obscenity and splendour of empire and its inevitable ruin; for mutability, senseless destruction and loss. The smaller dramas that play out against this backdrop, meanwhile, give meaning and context to the bigger issues – and show how they work on a human scale. (Or don't – since, for instance, the Major is capable of looking out at women fighting over food foraged from a dustbin and thinking only of Sarah and that "she doesn't love me at all".)
Yet the sensual descriptions aren't just there to make a philosophical point. Farrell's portraits of the Majestic are as valuable for the sheer pleasure of reading them as for the wider issues they raise. There's deep joy to be found in the wonderful descriptions of rooms boiling with cats, huge white hairy roots pushing through floors, walls bulging with damp, waterfalls plunging down staircases. (An interesting aside: Malcolm Dean explained in the Observer in the 1970s how Farrell wrote the novel in a "dingy bed-sitting room" in Notting Hill. "It's one virtue was a small balcony looking down on a pleasant garden, but even this was not without its perils as every time the tenants above let out their baths one was sprayed with the old bath water." Clearly Farrell was writing what he knew.)
As well as overloading the senses, Farrell can build volumes into single words. "Bitterness", when used to describe the Major's attitude to his experience of the first world war, conveys years of unspeakable pain. When an apple sent up to the Major's ill fiancee returns with just one "despairing" bite taken out of it, we realise the inevitability of her doom. This is exquisite writing. And like many of the finest prose technicians, Farrell is also very funny. Yes, the material is desperately sad, but much of the presentation is hilarious. This author doesn't just walk the knife-edge between comedy and tragedy, he picks the knife up and starts dancing with it. Here's Edward showing the Major a lavender bed in the hotel: "'Planted by my dear wife'. After a moment, as if to clear up possible misunderstanding, he added: 'Before she died.'" Here, Edward waits for the military parade on November 11: "At any moment the pageant would begin, the triumphant apotheosis of the Empire's struggle for peace." Always, the sharpness of the wit makes the tragedy cut deeper.
I can't praise this book enough. It's a good rule that reviewers should be forbidden from using the word "genius": the word has been drained of its original value, thanks to chronic overuse. If a reviewer uses the term, it generally means that they shouldn't be trusted. But it's hard to know what else to say when faced with a book like Troubles. There's no avoiding it. JG Farrell was a genius.