JG Farrell’s Empire Novels: The Decline and Fall of the Human Condition, by Rebecca Ziegler, Four Courts Press, 208 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1846827570
This is a superb book, well-researched, drawing with telling and focused effect upon the extensive Farrell archive in Trinity College Library and displaying a thorough knowledge of Farrell’s best-known series of novels: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), The Singapore Grip (1978) and the unfinished The Hill Station (1981). Reference is also made in corroborating illustration to Farrell’s first three novels, the somewhat neglected part of his substantial achievement as a major novelist of the latter half of the twentieth century: A Man from Elsewhere (1963), The Lung (1965) and A Girl in the Head (1967).
Farrell, who was born in 1935, died tragically in 1979 in a fishing accident near Kilcrohane in West Cork, where he had moved a few months previously. He was only forty-four. As his friend of many years, Derek Mahon, remarked in his introduction to Lavinia Greacen’s essential biography, JG Farrell: The Making of a Writer, about a visit he and his (Mahon’s) wife made to the Kilcrohane house in 1981:
We found on his desk and bookshelves Japanese dictionaries and Buddhist texts which seemed to indicate the way his thoughts were tending during his last year, and even to reveal an important, if barely visible, aspect of his nature; for his early brush with death and subsequent singularity had developed in him a mystical strain, one which expressed itself in impatience with London and withdrawal to the silence of West Cork – there, in an old phrase, to make his soul.
The “early brush with death” refers to Farrell having contracted polio in 1956 while an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford. The disease, widespread throughout the fifties, was in part treated with the patient being placed in an “iron lung”, a mechanical respirator which would effectively take over the workings of the body. As Greacen describes it: “He was trapped, alone, inside the ultimate compartment, with his mind the solitary lever of control. The habit of observing and committing to memory would be a providential resource, and record an ordeal beyond the measurement of temperature chart or attentive hospital note.”
Anyone who has experienced such physical isolation as a result of childhood or juvenile illness knows well the lasting influence it can bring to bear. In Farrell’s case, on his recovery, he deflected “pity by a screen of cheerful irony”. But the physical strains of the illness, visible in the photographs of him taken in 1957 and a little later, cannot mask the deeper access his struggle to regain health gave him, in terms of a desire to see the world and, as his novels abundantly prove, to remake it.
For Farrell, writing became a way of reconstructing the world according to his strongly felt belief in the value of art. And in each of his “empire” novels he found history at his beck and call, delving through extensive research, travels, note-taking, questioning and exploring the world which his novels recreated: Ireland in the civil strife of the 1920s, India in 1857 during the Great Mutiny against the British, Singapore on the threshold of the Second World War and the return to India in the 1870s in his final, unfinished novel, The Hill Station. Writing to one of his many friends, literary editor Carol Drisko in 1968, in the lead-up to the publication of Troubles, he remarked: “I don’t mean to sound ironic, the characters have my sympathy. The human condition – we all have my sympathy.” Sympathy with characters but also, what makes Farrell such an important writer for today, an ability and commitment to reproduce a complex of varied and dramatic realities beyond himself through his characters, as well as an ability to describe landscapes, both interior and exterior.
This imaginative force is at work in the novels, of course, but we must also speak about Farrell’s ceaseless interest in, and use of language: he is a master of English. It is on this score that Rebecca Ziegler’s new study reaches a new and influential level of reading. Her study, though leaning a little too much upon an almost self-fulfilling thesis (for empire read human condition), amazes the reader with the depth and extent of the author’s understanding of what she calls Farrell’s subversive language. Quoting Margaret Drabble’s comment that “there are few writers who have made such pervasive use of the emotion of bewilderment” as Farrell, Ziegler makes a telling point:
Drabble is apt in her choice of the word “bewilderment”. So often, Farrell’s language sets us wandering, lost in a wilderness of possible new meanings, double entendres, and ambiguities … Farrell’s metaphors and choices of words often convey meanings different from the surface meaning, the apparent intended meaning, or the meaning the characters would wish to present. Thus these words and metaphors are subversive language.
In these copious and at times dense chapters, the author covers Farrell’s thematic obsessions: the dog named “The Human Condition” (from The Singapore Grip); the primacy of ideas in “Rebels, symbols, ceremonies and abstractions”; “Subversive language”; and finally, “The grip pried loose: bodies, lands and possessions”. It’s a mind-blowing, forensic, internal examination of Farrell’s writing style, utterly convincing in its reach and illustrative of the depth of his imagination and the ability he had to resource his prose with other forms of writing: history, poetry, science, geography. Farrell was fascinated by the world and it shows. “But warfare on the ground,” Ziegler writes in a section on “Ceremonies and Symbols”,
generally manifests itself as a terrifying, chaotic, brutal, bloody scramble rather than a solemn and elevating ceremony. World War I was extraordinary because the technology of warfare had advanced to a point where brutality behind the ceremony was inescapable and because war inspired literature that frankly expressed the brutality at the expense of the ceremony. A good example is Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est”, in which the sordid ugliness of soldiers suffering from a gas attack is devastatingly contrasted with the patriotic motto “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”. When Farrell was recovering from polio, he read the World War I poets.
The point is neatly made here as elsewhere, when, for instance, Ziegler picks out a detail from Lavinia Greacen’s biography:
Farrell commented about his experience with polio that “it made me more of an outsider”. Lavinia Greacen thinks Farrell’s ordeal with polio helped spark his interest in the decline of the British empire. She says that “The abrupt downturn in British power coincided with his personal lost ground,” and she reports that while he was recovering he became engrossed in the Suez crisis.
What Farrell would have made of the Brexit tragi-comedy, or the full-blown human disaster of Syria, or the nefarious rebirth of a malevolent Russian ruling elite, is a matter of conjecture. History, and the history of violence was not something abstract: “In 1941, when he was 6 years old, a bomb hit the house in Southport, damaging it but fortunately injuring no one.”
There is a little (and very rare) confusion in the early pages of the study concerning Farrell’s birth date – on one page he’s born in 1933 but on the previous page his birthdate is given correctly as 1935. On occasion, there is also some repetition, particularly dealing with the early fiction and which novel comes first, second and third and a couple of generalisations lose their moorings, as with the following final clause: “In Farrell’s own lifetime, the revelation of the crimes of Nazi Germany at the Nuremberg trials demonstrated that a nation that had been considered one of the major builders of Western civilisation had blotted its copybook in a big way.”
The conclusion, when it comes, is somewhat anti-climactic, bearing in mind the sheer detail, energy, scope and cross-reference which Ziegler has brought to her task:
In Farrell’s novels, things go wrong in the human condition, as they do in the British empire. Among the things that bedevil the human situation and worsen it are bodies, lands, possessions, language, symbols, ceremonies, and ideas – in other words, a very wide range of the things that human beings deal with.
Professor Ziegler has produced a first-rate study of Farrell. She has given us what we need to know about the constituents of his fiction and the various means by which this greatly missed writer produced such lasting and effective prose. Her book will be a point of reference, a hugely resourceful means by which a new generation can learn about Farrell the technician but also discover what it means and what it takes to write fiction of this order. For their commitment in publishing this study, Four Courts Press deserves praise too, since it is their third title dealing with Farrell since Troubled Pleasures: The Fiction of JG Farrell, edited by Ralph J Crane and Jennifer Livett, appeared in 1997, followed by JG Farrell: The Critical Grip, also edited by Ralph Crane, in 1999.
Ziegler’s extensive bibliography reveals that the volume of Farrell studies has intensified and along with the pioneering work of Lavinia Greacen’s biography, a second edition of which was published by Cork University Press in 2012, there’s Greacen’s useful JG Farrell in his Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries, from the same publisher.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Farrell’s death. Had he lived he would now be eighty-four. Something in his make-up however suggests a personality and presence of the here and now, irrespective of age. He was an intently political writer in the sense that he had a keen, unrelenting eye for the hypocrisy of particularly English manners of discourse and an understanding of the military and class basis of imperial self-belief. But his curiosity spanned different cultures and other times, and he was much troubled by what was actually happening in, for instance, Northern Ireland in the 1970s where his dear friend, and best critic, Bridget O’Toole, had moved as a young lecturer in the new and controversially located Ulster University and whom he visited, bringing “the Troubles” and a life back in Ireland firmly to his mind.
As Ziegler informs us in this valuable and inspiring study, Farrell had a wicked sense of fun and a way of handling pain and trauma so that even in the most trying, shocking of moments he could release the pressure on his characters with startling effect. For example, the Major’s Sassoon-like musings about First World War ceremonies of commemoration in Troubles:
There were so many ways in which the vast army of the dead could be drilled, classified, inspected, and made to present their ghostly arms. No end to the institutions, civilian or military, busy drawing up their sombre balance-sheet and recording it in wood, stone, or metal. But if there was no end to the institutions there was no end to the dead men either. In truth there were enough to go round several times over. … Long ranks of tiny eyes were now staring at the Major as if accusing him of being alive and about to eat breakfast.
While they do not present quite the same degree of challenge and consistency as the empire novels, it may also be time to revisit Farrell’s first three novels and take a look at the times in which they were written as we spin around wondering what is really going on today.
Gerald Dawe’s eight books of poetry include Lake Geneva and Mickey Finn’s Air. He recently published The Wrong Country: Essays on Modern Irish Writing. He was professor of English and a fellow of Trinity College Dublin.