Books: Fishing for the lost great hope of English fiction

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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. He died soon after making what many thought was a maverick move to the Irish countryside. This he justified on the twin, perhaps contradictory grounds of disgust at the tax laws and at the imminent philistinism of a Conservative election victory. There were some who thought his death suicide, which is unlikely, but one friend suggests that his subconscious pulled him that way at a time of stress. A troubling symptom of this stress is the list he made of the four women whom he thought might marry him. He was deliberating upon the best order in which to approach them.

Lavinia Greacen evokes adequately enough such scenes as end-of-Empire India, the wartime north-east, Oxford in the Fifties, Swinging London, Paris, and the New York sojourn (on a Harkness Fellowship) which galvanised Troubles - re-read in this light, the novel does suggest a joshing American take on events. All the while, however, she has a near-obsessive desire to lard the narrative with italicised sentences and sections from Farrell's work. This makes for a hard read.

For all that, the spirit of Troubles breaks through. Farrell was anxious about his father's health in 1977 and, as was his wont, he strolled into Harrods food hall, the nearest grocer's to his small flat. It is a splendid vision: "Consumed by anxiety, he cannoned into Olivia Manning, who promptly shielded a plastic bag. `It's William Gerhardie's ashes,' she chided. Taking her arm, he accompanied her to Queen Mary's rose garden in Regent's Park, where Gerhardie, whose work had influenced his own, had stipulated his ashes should be scattered in his will. Just before leaving, Jim would subsequently maintain, he felt a hand on his ankle as a ghostly presence sought to detain him, and simultaneously he tripped and fell."

A better biographer would have ended the paragraph there, but Lavinia Greacen continues with something about a publisher's unsatisfactory offer for the next novel. Farrell would not have been pleased. He was always an adroit technician, one who left behind a masterpiece - something in which those who suffered him can take consolation.