J. G. Farrell was essentially a realist whose most accomplished works draw on extensive historical research and are both carefully crafted and meticulously detailed. In each of his historical novels, Farrell focuses on various outposts of British colonialism that are under attack and, by implication, in decline. Often these works bluntly ridicule the cultural codes and biases that made the British Empire possible; indeed, they tend to ridicule narrow-mindedness of any kind and suggest, implicitly, that no religion or ideology can convincingly account for the existence of humankind. Much of Farrell’s fiction focuses on the seeming randomness of human life, on the least attractive attributes—particularly the brutality and the greed—that are part of human nature. The tone of his works, moreover, is frequently sardonic and aloof, but it is by no means misanthropic. Instead, as Farrell’s friend and fellow novelist Margaret Drabble has observed, “Farrell combined a sense of the pointless absurdity of man with a real and increasing compassion for characters caught up in decay and confusion.”
Farrell’s first book, A Man from Elsewhere, is set in France and focuses largely on a journalist named Sayer, who seeks to expose a former Communist alleged to have dealt too intimately with the Nazis during World War II. In his second novel, The Lung, Farrell’s principal figure is Martin Sands, a young man confined to an iron lung and in love with Marigold, his stepdaughter and nurse. A Girl in the Head, Farrell’s third novel, depicts the romantic difficulties of Boris Slattery, a Polish count living in the English resort town of Maidenhair. These novels are certainly not without merit: They contain some fine tragicomic moments, and they feature characters—such as Slattery—that, in some scenes, come convincingly alive. Farrell’s early novels, however, are ponderously paced; they tend to reveal the self-consciousness of a beginning writer who is trying hard to be original and clever but failing to conceal his debt to other authors. In A Girl in the Head, for example, it is not difficult to detect the presence of Iris Murdoch, whose celebrated first novel, Under the Net (1954), similarly and more successfully combines a disaffected young hero and a supporting cast of eccentrics with serious philosophical themes and, throughout, a charmingly whimsical tone.
The far better Troubles is set in the Irish coastal town of Kilnalough and covers the years between 1919 and 1921—a period in which militant Irish nationalists were beginning to employ violence more frequently as a means of freeing their country from British control. The book’s central figure, Major Brendan Archer, is a veteran of World War I who comes to Kilnalough’s huge Majestic Hotel, where his fiancé, Angela Spenser, resides with her father, Edward, a jingoistic, increasingly unbalanced man who owns the hotel and must work hard to keep it running. The Majestic is—like the British Empire itself—an aging, sprawling structure in a slow but certain state of decay. The Majestic is dusty, gloomy, and filled with odd, elderly guests; in its lobby, one hears the constant ticking of an ancient pendulum clock.
Unlike theprotagonists in Farrell’s earlier novels, the Major is neither intellectually nor artistically inclined. He is, in fact, a rather bland figure who enjoys reading serialized adventure stories and who has without reflection absorbed most of the prejudices of his nation and his class. Though not a religious man, he regards with particular prejudice and suspicion the tenets and practices of Roman Catholicism. He also takes for granted the notion that Irish Catholics are still simply too irrational and unruly to be trusted with the task of governing themselves. The Irish Republican movement, he unthinkingly assumes, “was merely an excuse for trouble-makers moved more by self-interest than patriotism.” Still, Archer is so well rounded that he cannot be dismissed as a mere bigot and an utterly unsympathetic character. The Major, Farrell makes clear, has been keenly disappointed both in life and in love; as a veteran of trench warfare, he has been on close terms with hunger, fear, and death. Early in Troubles, the Major—fresh from war—is shown attending a tea party and causing some discomfort among his fellow guests because of the intensity with which he studies their heads, arms, and legs: “He was thinking: ’How firm and solid they look, but how easily they come away...
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