Books: Diving into legend

This rugger hearty, polio victim and Booker winner drowned in his prime. By John Sutherland; J G Farrell: the making of a writer by Lavinia Greacen Bloomsbury, pounds 25, 429pp
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W hat was it that "made" J G Farrell a writer? How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky? What one can say is that if Jonas Salk had been a year earlier with his vaccine, we would not have had the imperial trilogy: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. And, had the novelist who wrote them not died in 1979 (mysteriously, as Lavinia Greacen is at pains to stress), he might well, by now, have joined Salk on the Nobel winner's platform at Stockholm. Re-writing literary history is as much fun as fantasy football.

When he went up to Oxford in October 1956, Jim Farrell had it all. Head boy at his Irish public school, "rugger was pretty well my life", he later recalled. He was clever and had got a place at Brasenose to read law. It was not his choice; his parents wanted their son to become "an eminent Dublin solicitor or barrister".

Jim was handsome, shy with girls, and tipped the scales at just under 14 stone. He was what in earlier times was called a "hearty" and now a "jock". A "full blue" was in prospect, a respectable degree - and a lot of post-game piss-ups in the Turl Tavern along the way.

This was the era of Oxbridge immortalised by Frederic Raphael's "glittering prizes". The university's cream of the crop were not, like their predecessors, merely "brilliant"; they were "celebrities". Greacen gives a roll call of Jim Farrell's starry contemporaries: Brian Walden, Alan Coren, Dudley Moore, Paul Johnson, Grey Gowrie, Ferdinand Mount, Paul Foot, Richard Ingrams, Ved Mehta, Auberon Waugh and Dennis Potter. To name, as they say, a few.

As Potter later observed (on reading Krishnapur), none of this golden crew knew the burly young undergraduate at Brasenose. Why should they? Oiks like Farrell came in bunches of 15. One only took notice of them when they came back sloshed on Saturday nights and honked on the stairs.

On 28 November 1956 - the height of the season - Jim Farrell had a bad game. He didn't feel right in the changing room afterwards, "cut the usual drinking session", took a bus back to college and crawled fully-clothed into bed.

He had polio. Six days later he was in an "iron lung" - that life-saving apparatus which was half Edgar Allan Poe's "Buried Alive" and half medieval torture rack. Salk's vaccine became widely available six months later, and the iron lung would join the hook-hand in the medical museum.

When he was recovered sufficiently for "physio" he was three stone lighter, and had shoulders that, to his mortification, he heard one girl call "flabby". It was like the Charles Atlas story in reverse: the husky young athlete had become a 90-pound weakling. Jim Farrell became J G Farrell; an "outsider", in the term popularised by Colin Wilson that same year. No longer a player, he became a spectator. The novelist was born.

Farrell flunked in law and, having transferred to Modern Languages, scraped a third. It did not phase him. He had already resolved to write. That was what outsiders did best. Over the next few years, he scraped by on various teaching jobs and travelling fellowships. He compensated for his disability by sexual athleticism, running three or four girlfriends at the same time (one of the side-show attractions of Greacen's biography is reading between the lines for the well-known literary ladies who at various times warmed Farrell's bed). Women fell for the slim, nerve-wracked good looks.

On his part, he would never commit to any one woman. Unfaithful in love, Farrell was steadfast to the muse. As Wordsworth put it, what the writer needs above all is "independence and resolution".

Farrell's first ventures in fiction did nothing to separate him from the 1500 or so novelists every year who try their luck and get nowhere. A Man from Elsewhere, The Lung (a vivid depiction of his health crisis), and A Girl in the Head were all apprentice works. Reviewers were variously cool, snide or unnoticing.

Farrell meanwhile was mining his own family background - the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, the Anglo-Indian professional classes, the army-officer caste. He was a pioneer in what is now called "postcolonial fiction", that genre born out of the exhaustion and guilt of empire. Sprightlier than Paul Scott, his fiction was less consciously "modern" than that of Salman Rushdie. He offered "a good read" while taking the novel into interesting new fields.

Novelists, like generals, need luck. Farrell's story of the Irish uprising, Troubles, came out in 1970, a few months after Ulster exploded into flames. Few novels have been more timely. Troubles hit the jackpot. And Farrell made it to the top with his Indian Mutiny novel, The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker in 1973.

As John Berger had, Farrell used his prizewinner's speech to attack the "unacceptable face of capitalism", incarnated in the donor firm which had made its millions out of sweated labour in the West Indies. The bad manners and bad headlines were, as always with Booker, good publicity.

Farrell, only 38, was rich and famous. He fired his agent and went into tax exile in Ireland. There was one more great novel, The Singapore Grip, about the ignominious surrender in 1942 which marked the the end for the British Empire.

Greacen's biography makes much of the strange episode of Farrell's death, aged only 43, on 11 August 1979. He was fishing off some rocks near his home in south-west Ireland and fell into the water. It was stormy (the same storm which would later drown 18 contestants in the Fastnet yacht race). What was odd, according to witnesses, was that Farrell made no effort to save himself. He did not shout for help and his body was never recovered.

Was it suicide? An IRA hit? Is J G Farrell, like Elvis, still alive? In all probability what killed him was the long-term debility of his polio. He was too weak to save himself. What made him a writer killed him.

Lavinia Greacen has written a vivacious biography which cleverly weaves snatches of Farrell's italicised prose into the narrative. She does not penetrate to the enigmatic core of Farrell's personality, nor does she try. But one comes away wanting to read more - more J G Farrell, that is.

John Sutherland is writing the biography of Stephen Spender