Troubles by JG Farrell
[Set 1919-22 in Co Wexford, Ireland: a young man, Padraig, is visiting the twin girls who live in the dilapidated hotel. They all play a dressing-up game]
So the tour got under way. Padraig followed with a twin on each arm.. and had an enormous success with the old ladies [the hotel guests]. What a fuss they made of him! It was wonderful, they thought, how he seemed to know what to do just by instinct, keeping his knees together and sitting up straight and so forth.
Then it was time for Padraig to go home for his supper and so he had to get changed back into his other clothes. But he would come again on the following day; there were still lots of dresses for him to try on…
For a few days they continued playing their game of dressing up Padraig as a girl. All Angela’s clothes were spilled out of their trunks cupboards and packing-cases; the dresses that suited him were put in one pile, those that didn’t in another. For a while they found this engrossing enough, but presently the job was finished. Just as interest was once again beginning to subside Viola remembered that they still had to consider the rest of Padraig’s clothing, his underwear, petticoats, corsets and so forth. Soon they were all bubbling with hilarity as they struggled with eye-hooks and tugged on the strings of Angela’s corsets – not that Padraig’s shapely body needed any artificial correction of course.
commentary: Thinking in advance about St Patrick’s Day, I picked up this one as a good Irish book, and noted it would take me a while to get through – it is 445 pages long. And I read it (this is hard to believe for me too) in a day. I couldn’t put it down, I ditched other things I should have been doing, and stayed up late to finish it. It is a masterpiece, it has instantly found a place in my ever-changing Top-10- books list.
It’s the first of Farrell’s Empire trilogy – the others are the Booker-Prize-winning Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip. This book won the Lost Booker Prize (awarded in 2010 for the best book of 1970) and rightly so. I think Farrell, despite that sudden re-surfacing, isn’t much thought of now – I said as much in a Guardian piece on book titles – ‘The Singapore Grip is now largely forgotten, except by journalists in search of a gripping headline.’ One person tried to argue with me, but I wish it had been 100 people saying ‘bestseller – much-loved – cult classic – taught on courses’, but no.
Troubles is a glorious book – hilariously funny but also very sad, surreal at times, with weird scenes of great charm, and others of bizarre violence (the cat who attacks a hat comes to a bad end…) Major Brendan Archer comes to a once-grand hotel in County Wexford to meet up with a young woman he is apparently engaged to, though he is rather vague about that. He met her while on leave from his service in WW1, but seems happy enough to go along with her plans for marriage. Her father, Edmund, owns the hotel. The Major becomes one of those very novelistic characters who mysteriously can’t leave a place, for no apparent good reason (cf recent blog read The Magic Mountain) – though at one point he goes away and comes back again. It becomes clear that the wedding isn’t going to happen, but still he lingers, infuriated by much that goes on, aghast and mystified by the political life outside the hotel. Some of the Irish are fighting a War of Independence – but who are they, and what do they want, and surely they can’t really hate the British…? The Major’s own background is never spelled out, but there are hints that he is Anglo-Irish too, part of the Ascendancy.
The months go by. There are the hilarious twins, Faith and Charity (no Hope…?) from the excerpt above - they are like schoolgirls from St Trinian’s and with them ‘everything has a habit of beginning amusingly and ending painfully.’ There are the old ladies and the strange Irish servants, and Sarah, the young Catholic woman from the local town. One character elopes, and ends up taking the same train twice, to the mystification of the station master.
It is remarkably like a bigger and more dilapidated Fawlty Towers, and it is equally funny, from small moments such as Edmund talking about the garden:
‘Planted by my dear wife.’ After a moment, as if to clear up a misunderstanding, he added: ‘Before she died.’- to the riotous and horrendous ball, along with the cameo of the man come to make breakfast the next morning.
I loved every minute of the book, with its clear and careful yet not hammered-home status as a metaphor or an allegory for the relations between the UK and Ireland, the hotel standing in for a crumbling empire. We know from the first page that the hotel is going to burn down (like many a big old house in Ireland in that era) – and the Major is constantly finding new disasters in the building before we reach that point: plants growing in the wrong places, wildlife everywhere.
We never really feel that we know the Major well, but he is a haunting and memorable character, and this is a haunting and memorable book, with a lot to say about the relations between locals and the gentry.
The man with the dog could be either Edmund or Brendan – it’s from the National Library of Ireland, which has a most wondrous collection of pictures generously on offer. The group on the steps of a grand house is from the same source, dated 1922. The Rosslare Hotel in the 4th picture isn’t nearly as grand or as dilapidated, surely, as the Majestic in the book, but the photo has a feel for it. You could find an illustration for every page of Troubles from this collection…
Isn't it a delight to find a book that absorbs you that much, Moira? I really like the touch of wit, and the quirky, interesting characters. It's hard to get such characters right, as you don't want them to go over the line (or at least I don't) into 'zany.' I'm very glad you enjoyed this.ReplyDelete
yes, Margot: such a joy to read something so readable and yet at the same time a serious work of literature.Delete
I haven't read it for years, though I agree it is a masterpiece. Time for another go.ReplyDelete
Just one point: the Major was wounded in WWI and suffered from shell-shock, which explains his vagueness and confusion over his engagement to Angela, who has her own problems.
Wonderful book. I didn't get that he was actually shell-shocked as such: Farrell did a great job of presenting a confused and confusing situation as very convincing.Delete
I don't think Farrell mentions shell-shock, but most (all?) of the book is depicted through the Major's eyes and there are mentions of his being wounded.Delete
Thanks, it does seem like a good explanation for his weirdness.Delete
This does sound very good, your comparison to Fawlty Towers sounds good; I think I would rather read about that kind of thing more than watch it. I would miss a lot when reading it, probably, not understanding or knowing much about UK and Irish history. But the length is a detraction. I already have to many long books to read. Maybe someday.ReplyDelete
I know, those long books make it hard. I get so annoyed with authors when I don't like a book AND it is long, just read one by James Ellroy and hated it.Delete
Moira, I have read about the Empire Trilogy and passed up many opportunities to pick up J.G. Farrell's books. I liked your description of this book as being "glorious" and "hilariously funny but also very sad" and "surreal at times." Those are the kind of books I'd love to read most of the time.ReplyDelete
Thanks Prashant - I wonder what you would make of his Siege of Krishnapur, which is set in India in the 19th century?Delete
Thanks, Moira. I'm off to look it up.Delete
Will be interested in your reaction to it.Delete
A pass from me thanksReplyDelete
Not even the Irish-ness to attract you... ?Delete
Nope sorry, though to be fair I have picked this one up over the years several times, but always put it back down. Just don't think I'd enjoy it.Delete
This sounds right down my street, what with the surreal humour, charm and darker overtones. I can see why some more recent critics don't like it, as there is a rather irritating attitude amongst serious literary critics that all literature should be (to misquote Dickson Carr) "Dull and damned and damned dull!")ReplyDelete
Interesting coincidence: My sister has been checking family history, and she told me on Thursday that there is a possibility that we might be entitled to dual Irish/British nationality. This may cause problems if England and Ireland are pitted against one another in major sporting events or the Eurovision Song Contest. We shall have to wait and see...
It could be a good time to find out you are Irish! and this book really nails that rare combination of total readability and utmost seriousness. And great jokes.Delete
I felt nostalgic reading your post, Moira, because Farrell was very much read in the 1980s and I did enjoy him (though not sure I actually read this one). Time for a revival perhaps.ReplyDelete
Yes he was wasn't he? That's when I first read him, and he was very highly-thought-of. It's always a mystery why some people's reputations survive, and others' sink. But he definitely might hope for a revival, and I do very much recommend this one - I really think you would like it.Delete
I'm actually embarrassed that one of my forebears was English on one side of my family, when the others were all from the Republic of Ireland. That reminds me of a line in Tana French's "The Trespasser," which you probably remember.ReplyDelete
Now this book is just not going on my TBR list, which is humongous at this point because of so many blog reviews that send me scurrying.
On another point, a friend just mentioned Alistair MacLeod's writing to me, and said he was a terrific writer. I said that I read about him on this blog. Now that two readers have mentioned him, I will put his novel on my TBR list.
Since I read Peter May's Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island, I am rather fascinated about the history of Scottish people, including those who went to Canada, willingly or not.
Have you seen "Random Passage"? Loved it.
I know! Too many books altogether. And I honestly think that both this book and Alastair McLeod's No Great Mischief would appeal to you greatly! I'm no help am I?Delete
Don't know Random Passage, I'm off to look it up.
English and an Irish servant go to Canada to the coast of Newfoundland and build a community there. Women are great in this, especially the main character.ReplyDelete
Yes, I looked, it sounded great!Delete
Let us know how you like it.ReplyDelete