When Lavinia Greacen undertook her magisterial yet intimately sympathetic biography of James Gordon Farrell, she gained access to his diaries and many of his letters, especially love letters and letters to his literary agents, editors and publishers about his professional desires and requirements. In this supplementary volume, a selection of her prime sources is presented in their full extent, amounting to a warts-and-all self-portrait of the novelist. It might well serve as an inspiration or a warning. Even with his fecund talent, ardent ambition, sound education (Rossall and Brasenose), eagerness to work and sufficient charm for social survival (English father, Irish mother), writing novels for a living proved intellectually arduous, financially precarious and often desperately lonely.
J. G. Farrell was sustained and handicapped by a complex temperament not uncommon in his difficult trade. He was a gregarious solitary. He recurrently sought the love of women, sometimes in overlapping affairs, until there seemed to be a danger of commitment, whereupon he managed to fend them off, but usually tried never to let them go, maintaining their hope by means of persuasively affectionate correspondence.
John Banville, today’s pre-eminent Irish novelist, himself a Booker prizewinner of celebrated subtlety, met Farrell only once but observed him closely enough to contribute a perceptive foreword to this new book. ‘Farrell the man,’ Banville writes, ‘was immensely attractive, tall and slender and possessed of a slightly jaded and even slightly sinister elegance.’ Farrell was both earnest and engagingly frivolous, satirical and satyric, and, when temporarily withdrawn in hermitic mode, provocatively saturnine.
Polio ended Farrell’s career as a rugby player at Oxford and forced him to spend months in an iron lung. The illness made him acutely aware of mortality, provided material for a novel, permanently weakened one arm, and gave him an air of vulnerability that moved women to cosset him. His libido was always in good working order. The various aspects of his character drew to him all sorts of people. Two young women once platonically adopted him, letting him stay in their flat, within convenient walking distance of Harrods’ Food Hall. He was a good cook. His longest lasting amorous relationship, not at all platonic, was with a woman who called herself ‘a part-time whore’ and gave him entrée into the Soho underworld.
The letters and diaries record in detail his early vicissitudes and later ascendancy. The chronicle is candid and written as well as if he hoped it would eventually be published. As an international literary gypsy, he said ‘It’s much better to be a foreigner,’ though depending, for examples, on a job as a labourer in the Canadian Arctic, a Harkness Commonwealth Fellowship to study scriptwriting at Yale, and on teaching English in France. In between the times he found inexpensive accommodation in London, he grew ‘tired of sleeping on couches and borrowing money’.
His first three novels, A Man from Elsewhere, The Lung and A Girl in the Head are partly autobiographical. Then he began his major work, his ‘Empire Trilogy’: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip, about British imperial decline in Ireland, India and the rest of the Far East. Troubles, with its allegorically doomed ‘Majestic Hotel,’ was justly regarded by many, including the author, as his best book. It won the 1971 Faber Memorial Prize (£250). The Siege of Krishnapur, representing the Indian Mutiny in miniature, won the 1973 Booker Prize (then a mere £5,000) and transformed his life, getting him much larger advances for his novels, but invading his privacy.
The Singapore Grip deserved a prize of its own for the rich ambivalence of its title, alluding to ‘capitalism and its crushing coils,’ in the words of his biographer, and to clenching the muscles of the vagina, ‘the erotic speciality of local brothels’.
A £20,000 advance from Weidenfeld & Nicolson enabled Farrell in 1978 to buy a cottage near the end of the remote Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork. He migrated to Ireland in 1979 for freedom from all disturbances, even by tax collectors, and for what he described as ‘douceur de vivre’. When he moved in, there was a postal strike and a two-year delay for a telephone — perfect conditions for creative achievement. Every evening, after several hours at his typewriter, he fished in Bantry Bay for mackerel and pollack for his supper. While fishing on the 11 August, 1979, a sudden high wave swept him off the rocks to his death at the age of 44. His body was recovered from the sea six weeks later and buried in a small Church of Ireland graveyard in the nearby village of Durrus.
His work-in-progress, a second novel about India, was published in 1981 as The Hill Station. Lavinia Greacen’s new book, with photographs, is a splendid memorial. Its appendix contains a poem dedicated to J.G. Farrell by his friend Derek Mahon.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 7, 2009Tags: Anthology, Diary, Letters, Non-fiction, Novelists