'Lost' Booker winner is named, 40 years on

JG Farrell, who died in 1979, has beaten off fierce competition to win the literary prize that never was

When, shortly after completing his celebrated Empire Trilogy, JG Farrell moved to a remote farmhouse above Bantry Bay, on Ireland's rugged south-west coast, he admitted that he was having trouble applying himself to his craft. "I've been trying to write but there are so many competing interests – the prime one at the moment is fishing off the rocks," he told a friend. That was August 1979 and a deadly Atlantic storm was brewing.

Weeks later, Farrell went down to the sea armed with his rod, slipped and fell on the foaming rocks. He drowned aged 44.

Last night, three decades after his death, the writer was named the winner of the "lost" Man Booker Prize for his 1970 tour de force Troubles, which tells the story of another Englishman who comes to grief in the Emerald Isle – this time a soldier embroiled in the gathering tempest of the Irish war of independence.

Farrell's brother Richard accepted the prize, a bound first-edition copy of the book, from Lady Antonia Fraser at a celebratory party in London's Fitzroy Square last night.

"This is a bittersweet moment to me," Mr Farrell told the audience. "It's sweet for obvious reasons but it's bitter because Jim can't be here to accept the prize himself."

The award was created to correct the anomaly that befell authors of books published in 1970, who missed the opportunity to be considered for the Booker-McConnell prize (as it was then known) when it changed from being given retrospectively to being handed out for the best novel in the year of publication. Farrell's fourth novel was one of a long-list of 21 overlooked books eventually whittled down to a short-list of six.

But it was Troubles which caught the eye of the judges, who praised its wit and searing intelligence. It means that Farrell, who was on the cusp of achieving international literary celebrity at the time of his death, will be brought to a new generation of readers. Even though it has never been out of print in the 40 years since it was first published, the novel looks likely to enjoy the traditional "Booker bounce" in sales and will lead to further critical re-evaluation of Farrell's standing among the great English post-war writers.

Quite how Farrell would have felt about the accolade is debatable. His agent and friend Deborah Rogers insisted yesterday it would have meant much to him to have the received the prize for the second time, having already won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapu.

But at that award ceremony, Farrell surprised guests with his ambivalent acceptance speech, referring obliquely to "commercial exploitation" and adding: "Every year, the Booker brothers see their prize wash up a monster more horrid than the last."

Had it not been for the change in the rules, Farrell would have been the first writer to win the Booker twice – a feat eventually achieved by JM Coetzee in 1999 and then Peter Carey in 2001. The Siege of Krishnapu was also nominated for the Best of the Booker in 2008.

Deborah Rogers said: "Often it is only by dying you give a great kick to a reputation but the awful thing is that you often wish the person was there to know about it. So often the real plaudits only come clattering out of the cupboard once it is realised what has been lost.

"Troubles is my personal favourite by him. It is a very, very funny book, quite apart from the big issues of the politics. It is heartbreaking when you think of all the books we lost from him."

The judging panel included the author Tobias Hill, the journalist Rachel Cooke and the newsreader Katie Derham, all of whom were born in 1970. They were tasked with selecting the shortlist, which was then voted on by the public via the Man Booker website. Troubles emerged as the clear winner with 38 per cent of the votes – more than double the number cast for any other book.

Cooke described the winner as "brilliant". She said: "It really is the most beautiful book. I am very wary of using the word perfect but it is hard to find anything wrong with it. If it were published now you would find it on prize shortlists. I am just really glad that he has won."

An intensely private man who never married, James Gordon Farrell was born to an Anglo-Irish family in Liverpool. He studied at Brasenose College Oxford where he was a keen rugby player, but contracted polio. The experience informed his second novel The Lung, written in 1965, but it was the Empire Trilogy which was to see his career really take off.

Troubles, about the tragic-comic hero Major Brendan Archer (and his sometime fiancée Angela) received the Faber Memorial Prize. The real star, however, is the Majestic Hotel, a faded and crumbling symbol of English suzerainty in Ireland. The shell-shocked English officer finds himself surrounded by mounting violence – from the republicans to the Black and Tans. The book was made into a television film in 1988.

'Troubles', an extract

They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere. The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings.

Although he was sure that he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged: a certainty fostered by the fact that from the very beginning she had signed her letters 'Your loving fiancée, Angela'. This had surprised him at first. But, with the odour of death drifting into the dug-out in which he scratched out his replies by the light of a candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.

Angela was no good at writing letters. In them it would have been impossible to find any trace of the feeling there had been between them during his home leave of 1916. She had certain ritual expressions such as 'Every day I miss you more and more' and 'I am praying for your safe return, Brendan' which she used in every letter, combined with entirely factual descriptions of domestic matters... Any personal comment, any emotion was efficiently masked out by this method. The Major did not particularly mind. He was wary of sentiment and had always had a relish for facts – of which, these days, his badly rattled memory was in short supply (in hospital he had been recovering from shell-shock)...

It was true, of course, that he was slightly uneasy as he set off for Ireland. He was about to be plunged into a circle of complete strangers. What if Angela turned out to be insufferable but insisted on marrying him? Moreover, his nerves were in a poor state. What if the family turned out to be objectionable? However, it's hard to be intimidated by people when one knows, for instance, the nature and amount of the dental work in their upper and lower jaws, where they buy their outer clothes (Angela had delicately omitted to mention underwear) and many more things besides.

Troubles by JG Farrell is available in paperback (Phoenix, £7.99)

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