Wednesday, November 5, 2008

J. G. Farrell's "Troubles": Book Review

Before his Booker Prize winning "The Siege of Krishnapur," Farrell wrote around 1970 what's now joined with "Siege" and the later "The Singapore Grip" as his "Empire Trilogy." While "Siege" (reviewed by me recently here and on Amazon US) delineates the collapse of English domination in India as colonists hole up in a makeshift fortress during the 1857 sepoy mutiny, for those in Co. Wexford from 1919-21, during what the Irish call the [Black &] "Tan War" or the struggle for independence, the inhabitants also hunker down as the natives slowly approach, surround, and advance.

Farrell attains an arch delivery that tweaks his own Anglo-Irish sensibility, perhaps. He focuses on one Major Brendan Archer, recently demobilized after WWI. You get nearly nothing about his veteran experiences, but he's haunted by them and seeks to return to a rather diffident fiancée whose family owns the hotel on the Irish coast. The Major wonders about Angela and how before he went back to the front after a leave in 1916 he got so casually committed: "They had been somewhat hysterical-- Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving." (11)

Later, he sees in rebel Dublin the sight of an IRA man shot: "Abruptly he collapsed inside the sandwich-board, subsided slowly to his knees and hung there, slowly supported by the boards, like an abandoned puppet." (100) There's a bit of needed wryness mixed with compassion, as when the Major's dying aunt recalls the noble demise of a tuberculer Mrs Perry, "whose husband, a ravening brute, had claimed his marital rights until the very end, causing [the aunt] to leave the sick-room for hours at a time, so that very often it would be nearly dawn before she was allowed back to comfort his victim-- who had been uncomplaining, however. Describing this, she would aim black looks back at the Major as if he were responsible." (135)

The steady, if shrouded, insurgency arrives even in sleepy Kilnalough against its rulers, and the Major and his neighbors at the Majestic face, like those in the "Siege," their fate. "It was like putting out to sea in a small boat: with the running of the waves it is impossible to tell how far one has moved over the water; all one can do is look back to see how far one has moved from land. So in the case of Ireland all one could do was to look back from the peaceful days before the war. And they already seemed a long way away." (138) Intriguingly, Farrell follows this passage immediately with a news clipping from an inquiry into one Lord Hunter, about his administration of martial law at Kasur, India.

The Major dawdles. Thwarted in love, "all he could do now was drift with the tide of events. Some strange insect had taken up residence in the will-power of which he had always been so proud, eating away at it unobserved like a slug in an apple." (266) As also in "Siege," pet animals often get poignant moments of their own on stage. Rover the blonde spaniel gets worse and worse along with his owners. Cats fill the upper stories of the hotel as it begins to fall apart. Going blind, Rover used to chase the felines; "as likely as not he would be set upon by an implacable horde of cats and chased up and down the corridors to the brink of exhaustion." Now, he begins to growl at shadows. The metaphor's apparent. "Day by day, no matter how wide he opened his eyes, the cat-filled darkness continued to creep a little closer." (281)

The plot's not what keeps you reading, but this Big House milieu. Farrell, to his credit, takes an early turn away from predictability around a hundred pages in-- this unsettles the rest of the book. It may not work entirely, but it's suited to the melancholic tone that permeates this work. (Derek Mahon's poem "A Disused Shed in County Wexford" was inspired by a late scene here, and he dedicated the verse to Farrell. Unfortunately, Mahon's poem outshines in a few lines all of this novel, which needed trimming easily by half.)

The action, in prose despite such cited moments, moves far too slowly. As with "Siege," much of the interest lies in Farrell's tone and his talent for set-pieces. Here, it's the dual attempted seduction of twins Faith and Charity by Mortimer and Matthews, two Tans, or British auxiliaries, after too much champagne by all and a formidable amount of fabric and fasteners in the form of ladies' undergarments to override. Farrell places such wit within a more symbolic depiction of the Hotel Majestic as it crumbles under fire, the sea, and decay. Its residents find, as in "Siege," their imperial notions of order undermined and while there's more food and arguably better shelter even under the conditions of another insurgency in the territories, there's also far less of the fascinating details that made "Siege" with its discussions of gunnery, cholera, germs, and Victorian ideas of progress so unexpectedly lively.

Here, a few Oxford pacifists suddenly stop by late in the story to lecture us about the background we need for the Irish question, but outside of this, the passive protagonist The Major and his semi-foil, Edward Spencer (note the surname's twist on at least one earlier English interloper) haven't much to occupy your attention during many of the nearly 450 sluggish pages. As even in "Siege," the pacing slows. The most vibrant passages again appear early on, and later, lassitude dominates. Even the denouement lags, a fault shared by "Siege." There's dramatic potential in the climactic scene (don't read John Banville's preface first; it spoils this. Interesting how Banville around this same time wrote his early Big House novel, similar in theme and mood, "Birchwood."), but the energy even there appears scattered and its presentation disorganized.

So, it's not up to the encyclopedic level of "Siege." It feels like the preparation for that novel which time has proven Farrell's best. Historical news items intersperse with a Big House conceit, a formidable symbol of the threatened Empire, but it's all in the end too neat in its formulations. While I enjoyed sections such as I've shared, I'd select "Siege" as the better achievement of an old bastion under assault by restive revolutionaries bent on destroying their colonial overseers behind such walls.


Miss Templeton said...

I read this novel some years ago! It certainly had the crumbling gothic atmosphere down well...isn't there a scene somewhere with a sheep's head in a chamber pot?

But what's interesting to remember is that the 'big house' here is a Hotel. Something a little more involved in the world of commerce? (And with a stake in being able to rely on a certain clientèle?)

Which reminds me: have you read Elizabeth Bowen's history of the Shelbourne?

(You see that, with this comment, I am making an effort to return to the world of Blogger and the social responsibilities therein...)

Fionnchú said...

Spot on, Miss T.! I realize now that I did elide the Big House-Hotel distinction, and you're correct about the commercial aspect, although as the novel goes on (and on), there's not much sense of anyone checking in or out after a few nights' stay. It reminds me more of a Leisure World-Sun City type of digs, if in less temperate climes!