Short Life, Great Books



I’ve mentioned JG Farrell in passing before, but thought it might be good to look at the life of this interesting author. Even Booker prizewinners are not immune to the amnesia of passing time. James Farrell is a classic example of the novelist cut short in his prime. ‘There is no question that he would today be one of the really major novelists of the English language.’ said Salman Rushdie.

The Irishman was born in Liverpool in 1935 but his father had been an accountant in Bengal, and James spent time teaching in Dublin and France, which informed his developing interests. A bout of polio left him debilitated, and he settled to writing. The 1960s were a golden time for finding publishers willing to take chances with new voices; Farrell’s first novel, ‘A Man From Elsewhere’, was published in 1963 and centred on grand themes; Catholicism, Communism and existentialism, in particular the conflicting positions of Sartre and Camus over the idea of noble sacrifice. Critics admired its ambition but, unsurprisingly, found it too cerebral. Another two novels failed to quite lock Farrell into his own tone of voice, although they were respectfully received.

Then came the big change with his Empire Trilogy. The first, ‘Troubles’, is set in a faded hotel from which vantage point the hero observes the Irish struggle for Independence, while the third, ‘The Singapore Grip’, concerned the capture of the British colony by the Japanese in 1942. But it was the second, ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’, that really caught the attention of critics and public, winning the Booker prize. Conflating siege stories from the Indian rebellion of 1857, it tells the story of a fictional British garrison facing extermination at the hands of sepoys on both intimate and epic scales. The book teems with memorable characters who prove chronically unable to share beliefs; a padre at odds with science, a maharajah who admires colonial progress, an English envoy who detests it. Heroics prove accidental and colonial rule is regarded with benign cynicism. It also delivers thrills with an astonishing, blackly comic climactic battle.

In his Booker acceptance speech, Farrell attacked his sponsors over their international business interests. This might be seen as typical behaviour from a man who described the hypocrisies of colonialism and religion in such clear-eyed prose. Farrell was fascinated by the decline of Empire. In 2010 he was posthumously given a second Booker prize for ‘Troubles’. He died in a peculiar angling accident at the age of 44, before he could finish his fourth volume in the colonial series.

2 comments on “Short Life, Great Books”

  1. Hazel Johnstone says:

    thanks for the reminder. I have had the Singapore grip at home for years and never read it. note to self!

  2. RobertR says:

    I read ‘Siege of Krishnapur’ as part of my “O” levels early 80’s exam boards must have been more adventurous. I remember clearly reading ahead as his narrative style gripped me – even now I recall the heads of statues of previous viceroys (& I think Queen Victoria too?) as replacement cannon balls; of a mixed shot of nail files and sugar tongs, anything metal left, being fired at the sepoys (sure one gets the sugar tongs in the forehead) & also the two, prim daughters of the regiment getting covered in cockroaches and having to strip off before each other to the social consternation on one & the pragmatic realism of the other. Not re-read it since, so 35 odd years later, his writing sticks with me still – that’s class.
    Finally tracked down ‘Troubles’ on a re-issue about 5 years ago – still great sense of place & big cast of real (if eccentric) characters. Reminded me of an Irish/historic ‘Gormenghast’ dark, strange with its own internal logic contrasted against the real world of the troubles & bombs & shootings.
    Encouraged me to find ‘Singapore Grip’ complete the trilogy!

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