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…