restricted access CHAPTER ELEVEN A Sea of Dark Feathers 1964–1965

From: JG Farrell

Cork University Press colophon
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‘My biggest cause for dissatisfaction [with A Man from Elsewhere] is that I find something artificial about it and I don’t think this is simply because I was present while it was being put together. Part of the trouble is stylistic. Sometimes the cadence of sentences becomes sonorous to the point of meaninglessness.’ The working notebook was always kept in the inside pocket of his jacket so he could jot down thoughts as they occurred – on a bench in the small park off the Boulevard Jourdain, waiting for the Métro, sitting alone at an uneven café table. Grey hair combed straight back, pale raincoat highlighting the dark shirt and darker tie, he fitted naturally into the background, and the London year shrank down to a ‘grisly mistake’. Eleven hours a week of taking conversation classes in a suburban girls’ school just about paid the bills, and the freedom from preparation and correction that had eaten into his free time in Mende and Toulon made up for the necessary ten hours of commuting on the Métro, ‘crushed and gasping’ in the rush hour. ‘I can only write in the mornings now,’ he reported to Gabriele, restoring her to her original penfriend role. ‘And some mornings I must go and teach English at a girls’ school (where I’m the only manteacher , in fact, man of any kind, in the establishment). I should add that the headmistress is delighted with me. She told a third person (who then told me) that she thought I was just like a big brother to her little girls! I’m not sure whether I should feel pleased or insulted that she regards me as being so harmless . . . The rain falls on Paris, on the Seine, on de Gaulle, on Montparnasse, on the graves in the Père Lachaise, on all the grey roof-tops and on the grey, deeply discouraged head of your friend.’ But without much difficulty he had got an official pass to stay for the academic year, a room shared with a shy Lebanese in the subsidised Cité Université, out in the fourteenth arrondissement, and occasional work at the British Institute in the rue CHAPTER ELEVEN A Sea of Dark Feathers 1964–1965 161 de la Sorbonne. ‘I’ve begun another, very different [book],’ he confided to Patsy Cumming within six weeks of his arrival, ‘about which I won’t talk for the moment as there are things that are still not clear to me.’ At the Cité Université – ‘an international students’ doss house’ – he was installed in the Fondation des États-Unis, a featureless American-funded 1930s building overlooking the multi-laned highway of the Boulevard Jourdain. Its main attractions for Jim, apart from the student rates, were the swimming pool in the basement and the Métro station oppposite, because taking exercise and saving time were absolute priorities. Brakes screeched and horns blared outside, day and night, and noisy young Americans crowded the lobby, the stairs and the cafeteria. ‘This freezes me to the marrow,’ he shuddered in the first few days. In the sanctuary of his room, where his typewriter and fresh paper were in position on the table, the distractions drifted away; initial progress, however, was slow. ‘I’m very tense again and in my book I can only see the difficulties ,’ he agonised in a letter one day. ‘Sometimes I feel that as a writer I’m already washed up.’ The book proving so elusive was drawn from his polio experiences; he had been tinkering with an approach, on and off, for over six years. Now the succession of hateful anniversaries immediately ahead added a rhythm to progress, and he set an initial deadline to coincide with the month, eight years earlier, of his release from hospital. ‘Having polio was an unpleasant experience while it happened,’ he acknowledged, ‘but I’m not sorry it happened now because it has allowed me to look into a whole new window of what it means to be alive and young at a certain time in a certain place. Anything is worthwhile which allows us a greater understanding.’ Nothing, not even the impact of President Kennedy’s assassination on the stunned students in the corridors, was allowed to get in the way. Summoning up the nightmare, sensation by claustrophobic sensation, he wrote with a fluency that surprised him, breaking off at intervals to rest his aching arms or to refresh his stamina and sensory memory in the...


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