J. G. Farrell Farrell, J(ames) G(ordon) - Essay

Farrell, J(ames) G(ordon)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Farrell, J(ames) G(ordon) 1935–

Farrell, a British novelist, was awarded the Booker Literary Prize for The Seige of Krishnapur.

[Troubles] offers endless information about minutiae. It almost never deals with an ambiguity or a subtlety that forces us to make some sort of interpretive choice while reading about a world of choices. Mr. Farrell does not give us a connotative experience; all is denotative. Without artfulness he interpolates history by means of excerpts from newspapers. The method is that of Hemingway's In Our Time, a vastly superior book that also concerns a troubled veteran seen against the background of a shaken postwar world. (p. 38)

Frederick Busch, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 25, 1971.

The Siege of Krishnapur is an unfashionable, understated, and utterly accomplished novel, a work of unusual and grateful intensity.

The Collector of Krishnapur, "a man like a massive cat", is a Mr Hopkins, a measured and sensitive man, open to the winds of change. Much of his philosophy ties in with a visit he paid, on home leave, to the Great Exhibition; he treasures models of experimental machines, and allegorical statues, which speak of humanity's progress toward universal peace and plenty….

[The] Collector probes the attitudes of his countrymen: cynics, profiteers, poets, fanatics, those whose moral sentiments fall short of action, and those whose hidebound education is their strength.

For all its reflectiveness, and tenacious adherence to social and material detail, this is above all a novel of action, because assumptions and quarrels are inexorably broken down, by starvation, cholera, rain and stench and fear….

J. G. Farrell uses India, unabashedly, as a backcloth against which to view the British, and 1857 as a mirror to 1957. His perception is distinguished above all by style—a style which encompasses the deliberate awkwardness of the rationalist, the solecisms of amateur poets, the enchanting follies of a terrified fanatic, as well as the more familiar convolutions of Indian English, and period conventions. It is caustic and woundingly compassionate, it delights in uncovering the opposite of what it purports to say, and is sometimes so blunt as to stop the reader in his tracks. Happening, it seems, by sheer felicity upon a turn of speech, Mr Farrell alternatively contents himself with an outrageous laugh, or carries the phrase to an unexpected and totally original conclusion.

"Down to the Bone," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 21, 1973, p. 1074.

When you finish reading "The Siege of Krishnapur" you feel it should win prizes. The author seems to stand in favor of dim-witted, misinformed, blood-bespattered human beings. He doesn't forgive ignorance or violence, but he reminds us that, when the smoke clears and the shooting stops, someone—and the more the merrier—has to be stirring, brushing off the dust, wondering what went wrong and what went right. Otherwise it isn't just meaningless, which is bad enough, it didn't even happen. J. G. Farrell proves to us that it happened with grace and humor and sympathy and much more. (p. 18)

John Deck, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 6, 1974.

J. G. Farrell's novel of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 ["The Siege of Krishnapur"] begins as a comedy of Victorian conventions and imperial pride. It accelerates into a terrific narrative of action as the prolonged siege tests the inmates of Krishnapur with cholera, stench, despair and religious mania. Before it ends, steep clefts have opened in the assumptions of progress and civilized order. (p. 110)

It would be unwise to read this novel as an exciting historical pastiche and to suppose the only "superior" civilization under examination is that of the Victorians…. "The Siege of Krishnapur," which deservedly won the richest literary award in England, the 5,000-pound Booker Literary Prize, is a work of wit, lively historical reconstruction and imaginative intensity. Farrell is an original, and I only mean to chart rough points of reference by suggesting that his book combines the pleasures of "The Reason Why," Cecil Woodham-Smith's astringent study of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Richard Hughes's classic "A High Wind in Jamaica." I enthusiastically recommend it. (pp. 110, 112)

Walter Clemons, "Volley and Thunder," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1974, pp. 110, 112.

[Despite what Sissman considers unduly reverent appraisals by British critics] Mr. Farrell's interesting and entertaining novel ["The Siege of Krishnapur"] is merely the rather early effort of a writer who has not yet hit his stride; its audacious idea—to trace the dissolution of Victorian ideas and ideals among a group of English empire-builders during a sustained siege—promises more than it is able to deliver. The author has presumably done his homework; I have no doubt that the settings, clothes, language, and artifacts are as accurate as research can make them. But the plot, which is sort of pat, is strung out on a series of carefully staged set pieces, and the vaunted style is simply not in evidence. This may be a little unfair to an attempt to say something about Victorian certitudes and their downfall in the face of reality. Mr. Farrell is artful in his ability to assemble a cast of representative yet individual mid-Victorians. He makes us believe, most of all, in his main figure, Mr. Hopkins, the Collector of Krishnapur, who is both the political and the ethical leader of this undefended outpost of the East India Company…. It is inevitable that [his] ebullient belief in Progress will be pummelled out of him in the course of the novel, but Mr. Farrell's ingenuity—and the vividness of his action sequences—makes the retelling of this old story fresh and pertinent. It is only when he gives in to the temptation to whet his blade of irony too keen … that obviousness overcomes the strong line of the narrative.

When Mr. Farrell is not caught up in an understandable desire to poke fun at his characters and their orotund respectabilities, he can be both direct and affecting; then even his ordinary diction comes to life: "Somewhere not far away, surrounded by jungle, Chloë and the sepoy lay side by side and rotted, or were eaten by the specialist animals of the night." For all its mishaps, "The Siege of Krishnapur" is a winning and readable novel, and it suggests that its author, who is not yet forty, is a man to watch. (pp. 193-94)

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 25, 1974.