Books: Fishing for the Lost Great Hope of English Fiction

By Hawtree, Christopher | The Independent (London, England), August 8, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Books: Fishing for the Lost Great Hope of English Fiction


Hawtree, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)


J G Farrell: The Making of a Writer

by Lavinia Greacen Bloomsbury pounds 25

Most novels slip painlessly from the mind soon after the final page has been read. Even those that have distinct merit can become little more than a pleasant blur. But there are books which discerning readers seize and urge upon all their friends. In his short life, J G Farrell wrote half-a-dozen novels spanning all these categories. If that is to dismiss most of his efforts, there remains his masterpiece: Troubles.

One of the many fascinating details to emerge from the clogged pages of Lavinia Greacen's biography is that among contemporary (1970) reviewers, only Elizabeth Bowen recognised that the novel was as much about its own day as 1922. It transcends the immediate circumstances of a skirmishing, bloody Ireland; so much so that even those with a block over anything to do with that perennial, parochial dispute relish the events attendant upon Major Brendan Archer's arrival at a once-grand, now fly-blown hotel, the Majestic, to meet again the woman to whom he thinks he became engaged in Brighton during leave from the trenches.

Lavinia Greacen has been able to call upon Farrell's overlapping parade of good-looking women (she masks only the former prostitute whom he portrayed in fiction as Lucy). In forever playing off one of these women against the other, as he did publishers and agents, Farrell emerges as a man whose charm masked a manipulation born of an insecurity which had him continually fretting about the progress, publishing and reception of his work.

As well he might. It is dismaying to learn that Troubles sold only 2,000 copies when first printed. One can't help but regret that he then saw greater viability in the straightforward historical novel, which is what the Booker-prizewinning The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) remains despite its subversive trappings, as does the somewhat better The Singapore Grip.

We shall never know what would have happened had Farrell not drowned while fishing 20 years ago - around the same time as the American novelist with whom he was often muddled, James T Farrell.

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