- Revaluation: J. G. Farrell's Troubles
I am not one of the people who had the good fortune to have read and appreciated J. G. Farrell's Troubles when it was published in 1970. Not only is it a moving and oddly charming story of the decline of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, but it came out just before Ireland was precipitated into another fierce and deadly round of violence—this one, like the civil war of the 1920s, called with considerable understatement "the Troubles."
But, like many readers, I was unaware of Troubles until this year. It was not lost, exactly; a reprint in the New York Review Classics series, introduced by John Banville, came out in 2002. Then in February of 2010 it appeared on a longlist of twenty-two titles eligible to win a new, one-time-only award from the rapidly expanding Man Booker Prize collection of divers competitions called "The Lost Man Booker." The stimulus for the contest was two-fold: these books were published in 1970, so it was an anniversary exercise, and all were still or again in print, demonstrating some lasting power. And they were "lost" as a result of a change in the early years of the Booker Prize (not called "Man" until 2002). Originally the Booker was a "retrospective" prize such that the 1969 winner would be a book published in 1968; in the third year, the rules were changed so that the year's winner would be a book published in that same year, and the announcement was moved from April to November. The result was that novels published in 1970 were never considered.
The twenty-two literary notch babies chosen for consideration included some big names: David Lodge, Len Deighton, Patrick White, Mary Renault, [End Page 489] Muriel Spark, and Shirley Hazzard, alongside writers who won the Booker in another year, Iris Murdoch and Farrell himself. I was struck by the inclusion of Deighton, as well as Ruth Rendell and Patrick O'Brian: in the present day "genre fiction" is studiously ignored. A group of three judges, all born around 1970, winnowed the field to a shortlist of six, and then readers chose a winner by voting online. This balance-of-powers scheme led to the announcement of Farrell as the winner of the Lost Booker.
The novel amply justifies the kind of renewed attention it has received. Farrell's fiction has a distinctive style or atmosphere that combines the comic and elegiac, the dreadful and preposterous, in a way that sometimes, as when he laconically transmits outrageous material, reminds one of early Evelyn Waugh. His characters are not so burlesqued as Waugh's, and at bottom he cares more about the historical events he narrates, seeing them as more than mere reminders of human folly. There is plenty of folly, but Troubles has grandeur and historical sweep.
The human focus of Troubles is Major Brendan Archer, who fought and was wounded on the Western Front and is a recently demobbed officer when the story begins in 1919. Having found himself engaged, more or less inadvertently, to Angela Spencer, a young Anglo-Irishwoman he met while on leave, he has dutifully come to Ireland to claim his bride. He arrives to find that she shows no interest in him, spends her time in privacy, and seems ill, though nobody tells him anything. At one point we read: "he really had to find out what was wrong with Angela, otherwise he might find himself here for weeks!"
His inquiry goes nowhere and comes to an end when, while he is in Dublin for a Peace Day celebration, Angela dies. But, instead of staying for weeks, he stays for years.
The nonhuman focus of the novel, and its most important feature, is the Majestic, a formerly grand but now terribly decaying hotel belonging to the Spencer family. Angela may be a cipher, but her father, Edward, her brother, Ripon, and her undisciplined sisters, Faith and Charity, are vivid. Edward is close to a caricature of the purblind Protestant—manic in his denunciation of the Sinn Feiners, though unable to figure out who they are, and determined to hold...