J. G. Farrell

(2084 words)
  • John McLeod (University of Leeds)

James Gordon Farrell was born in Liverpool on January 25th, 1935. His mother, Jo, was Irish with family connections in Dublin, while his father, Bill, was from Liverpool and had worked in India and the Far East. These geographical locations would become the imaginative environment of Farrell’s “Empire Trilogy”, for which he is best remembered. Farrell spent his early years in the North West of England until the end of the Second World War, when the Farrells moved to Dublin. Jim (as he was known) attended school in England, eventually boarding at Rossall public school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, between 1948 and 1953. He returned to Ireland in the holidays. These travels left an indelible stamp on the young Farrell. He remarked later in life that he was always treated as English when in Ireland, but regarded as Irish in England. An intelligent and athletic schoolboy, Farrell excelled at sports from a young age and revealed a precocious talent for writing as well as a hearty interest in literature.

In September 1956 Farrell went up to Oxford to begin studying Law at Brasenose College. With typical athleticism he quickly became active in a variety of sporting associations. On September 28th he suffered a seemingly innocuous injury during a game of rugby, but in the days that followed it became apparent that he was quite seriously ill. He was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with polio, and for a spell it was not clear if he would survive. As part of his treatment he was confined to an iron lung for a month. Slowly he began to recover. Over the coming long weeks he gradually recuperated, although it also became clear that his body had been irreparably crippled by the disease. He underwent physiotherapy in an attempt to minimise the damage, but he never fully recovered his mobility or strength, particularly in his upper body: his right arm would remain partially disabled for the rest of his life. Within months a young, muscular and active young man was turned into a gaunt, emaciated, prematurely aged individual for whom physical exercise would always be a source of pain.

Tranformed by his illness, it was a very different Farrell who returned to Brasenose College in the Autumn of 1957, enrolling this time to read Modern Languages (French and Spanish). Because of his difficulties his studies were slow and he found examinations physically wearisome to complete. He graduated with a Third in 1960. He moved to France shortly afterwards to work as a teacher. Affected by his experiences with polio, and influenced by his reading of French literature (especially the works of Albert Camus), Farrell began to write a series of gloomy, existentially anguished novels. The first, A Man From Elsewhere (1963), was published as part of Hutchinson’s New Writers series. It portrays a conflict between a Communist journalist, Sayer, sent by his newspaper to confront and discredit an old Communist turncoat and famous writer, Regan, who is nearing death. The confrontation is one between two different philosophies – Communist impersonality vs. existential individualism – both of which emerge from the novel in shreds. It is a bleak book with little of the characteristic laughter that would be later associated with Farrell’s mature works. Two years later The Lung was published, a much better novel which draws upon Farrell’s tortuous experiences in an iron lung. Is is, predictably perhaps, a melancholy and unhappy narrative which mourns the sudden death of youth, although it also offers, in the story of Martin Sands, struck down unexpectedly from polio, an unheroic narrative of survival, fortitude and (albeit in short measure) the enduring significance of life in an otherwise meaningless universe. It is also extremely funny, often rendering Sands’s unbearable experiences in bizarre or absurd terms. The representation of sobering scenarios as darkly comic, appearing almost like scenes from slapstick, would become a part of Farrell’s distinctive qualities as a novelist.

Before moving briefly to London, Farrell finished his third novel, A Girl in the Head (eventually published in 1967), which features the bizarre travails of Boris Slattery during one summer in Maidenhair Bay. This novel also emphasises an existentially weary view of human life, focusing in particular upon the ways in which youthful possibilities and dreams are doomed to be destroyed by the cruel, uncaring and predatory aspects of adult life. It brought to a conclusion both Farrell’s early, moderately successful career as a novelist and the particular kind of melancholic, gloomy narrative he favoured as a younger writer. Farrell’s early novels have been frequently discredited by critics or seen as the preparation for the better books of the 1970s, and are consequently out of print today – an undeserving fate, perhaps, not least because these works (especially The Lung) are much better than is generally thought and deserve to be widely available.

In 1966 Farrell was awarded a Harkness Fellowship which enabled two years of graduate study in the United States of America. He took up residency in New Haven, although he soon became bored with his classes at Yale University. While in the States he travelled to New York in May 1967 and visited Block Island, where he surveyed the ruins of the Ocean View Hotel, a once-fashionable establishment with a fascinating history. Inspired by the visit, Farrell worked avidly on his next novel, Troubles, set in Ireland between 1919 and 1921 and featuring at its heart a fabulous old hotel, The Majestic, standing on the coastline of the fictional holiday resort of Kilnalough. The Majestic’s fate is to be burned to the ground as the Irish War of Independence gathers momentum, and with it is destroyed the authority and dreams of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and its colonial sympathies. Troubles is a transitional novel, combining some of the bizarre melancholy of Farrell’s earlier “existential” novels with an important new departure: an interest in imperial history and the demise of the British Empire. An innovative historical novel, it offers a view of the end of Empire in Ireland from a marginal, microcosmic perspective by plotting the changes to the country through the declining fortunes of the hotel’s owners, the Spencer family, and its memorable casts of aged residents. While mobilising the genre of the historical novel ironically, Farrell’s new style retains some of the eeriness and elegiac atmosphere of the early novels, a combination that makes for a highly potent and original kind of fiction and which was to transform his career as a novelist in the coming months.

On returning to England in 1969, Farrell secured a publisher for the new novel and began reviewing for the Spectator. Troubles, the first volume in the “Empire Trilogy”, was published in December 1970 to extensive and enthusiastic acclaim. In May 1971 it was awarded the prestigious Faber Memorial Prize. The award secured Farrell’s reputation as a major novelist and made his financial situation far more healthy. Living permanently in London, he began to work on a new novel, set in India during the “Indian Mutiny” or “Uprising” of 1857, which would eventually become the second part of the “Empire Trilogy”. Later that year Farrell travelled extensively through India and visited Lucknow, site of a famous siege during the events of 1857. Lucknow would be one of the antecedents for The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). Like its predecessor, this novel was set in a colonial possession at a time of crisis, and focused on a memorable cast of characters whose authority and grip on reality would be defeated by a set of historical circumstances beyond their control. The novel was fiercely scathing of the arrogance, confidence and aggrandisement of Victorian’s colonial attitudes, as well as being remarkably funny in its absurd, almost slapstick representation of the beleaguered colonials marooned in the Residency in Krishnapur. It was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction in 1973. During the speech Farrell condemned Booker’s exploitative practices in the Far East, especially the treatment of its workers.

The money which Farrell received for winning the Booker helped fund a trip to Singapore in 1975, the setting for the third novel of the “Empire Trilogy”, The Singapore Grip (1978). This novel, the biggest and most ambitious novel of the three, depicted the fortunes of Singapore in the late 1930s and early 1940s, focussing specifically on its capture by the Japanese during the Second World War. It featured a cast of characters and variety of concerns more suited to the cinematic epic or blockbuster, and was self-consciously filmic in its design. Farrell had becoming increasingly influenced by his reading of Marx during the later 1970s, and the novel was written to a degree from a Marxian perspective in telling the story of Singapore’s “fall” through the declining fortunes of Blackett and Webb, a large rubber business based in Singapore. The themes of decline, loss of authority and crisis loomed large again, although in this novel there was less of the humorous and the bizarre. Although it was the most self-assured, controlled and mature of Farrell’s novels, it perhaps lacked some of the earlier melancholic, uncanny atmosphere which—especially when combined with Farrell’s historical eye—make his novelistic style so memorable and distinct.

Farrell’s “Empire Trilogy” is a major work of postwar British fiction, although only in recent years has its qualities come to be appreciated fully by literary critics. Farrell takes a critical view of the British Empire, representing its demise not as tragedy or elegy, but as farcical. His characters are often deluded, cynical colonials crushed by circumstances they struggle to control or understand – such as Edward Spencer in Troubles or Dr Dunstaple in The Siege of Krishnapur – or youthful idealists drunk on dreams of imperial adventure but soon to be sobered by the sordid deeds of Empire, such as Matthew Webb in The Singapore Grip. Without ever minimising the horrors of conflict, Farrell plays with the conventions, clichés and dominant tropes of imperial fictions, poking fun at obsolete ideological values and pointing out the pitfalls of colonial arrogance. In this respect he is certainly not quietly elegiac about the end of Empire (a mistaken view of his work adopted by early critics) but anticipates – perhaps even partly inspires – a body of postcolonial writing in Britain in the 1980s by such figures as Timothy Mo and Salman Rushdie which mobilise the genre of the historical novel for similar critical purposes. In this respect Farrell was years ahead of his time, and it is revealing that a variety of critical books, articles, and one biography (Lavinia Greacen’s excellent J. G. Farrell: The Making of a Writer, 1999) have recently appeared as postcolonial writing has become increasingly popular with readers and critics alike. Farrell also makes a central contribution to the evolution of the historical novel more generally in the postwar period, opening up this seemingly “realist” or mimetic narrative genre to more playful, occasionally postmodern elements which called attention to reality as a partial product of modes of representation. Indeed Matthew Kneale, shortlisted for the Booker Prize for English Passengers (2000), his fictional account of nineteenth-century colonial travels, recently cited Farrell as a fundamental influence.

After the publication of The Singapore Grip, Farrell began work on another novel of India, on a much smaller, modest scale. In March 1979 he decided to leave London and move to his maternal home, Ireland. He bought an old farmhouse in Bantry Bay on the Irish coast, and settled happily to work on his next book. On Saturday August 11th, Farrell decided to spend the day fishing on the coastline a few yards from his new cottage. During some unexpectedly stormy conditions he was washed out to sea by a freak wave. Weakened and partially crippled by polio, he would have found it very difficult to swim even in calm weather. A family relaxing nearby saw him slip below the water. Farrell’s body was washed up a month later. His friends, family and his thousands of readers were stunned by his death. He was forty-four years old. He was buried in the cemetery at St James’s Church of Ireland in nearby Durrus. In October of 1979 a memorial service was held at St Bride’s in Fleet Street for his English-based friends.

In 1981 Farrell’s last unfinished book of India, The Hill Station, was published with his “Indian Diary” of 1971, two appreciations of his work by his friends John Spurling and Margaret Drabble, and a memoir by Malcolm Dean. Farrell’s untimely death cruelly cut short the life and career of one of Britain’s best post-war writers.

McLeod, John. "J. G. Farrell". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 July 2001
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1486, accessed 01 February 2015.]

Articles on Farrell's works

  1. The Siege of Krishnapur