by J G Farrell
This book gave me some ‘troubles’ to read. I don’t know why exactly. The writing style is quite dense but well-structured and beautifully phrased. The physical format of the book (1970’s Penguin paperback, small print, yellowing pages, some of them falling out) made it a bit of struggle to read, but I don’t think this would have deterred me if I had become really engrossed. (It does make me pause for thought, though, about the relative quality of paperbacks 40 years ago compared to now. Modern books seem to be more robust, and also, in many cases, much more appealing on the outside.)
So, what was wrong? Sometimes it is not the book itself, but the state of mind of the reader. I have a pile of books – some bought, some borrowed – waiting for my attention, and I added to the pile with both new and secondhand volumes on my visit to Cornwall two weeks ago. So maybe part of me was thinking “I’d rather be reading something else”. The fragility of the physical book deterred me from packing it in a rucksack or reading it in the bath, so I interspersed my reading of it with other things. In the end, though, I am forced to conclude that it was the book itself that was off-putting.
There is not much of a plot. The central character, known throughout as “the Major” although we do learn his real name, travels to Ireland after the First World War to claim his fiancée Angela, whom he met whilst on leave and hardly knows except from her letters. Much of the narrative is concerned with Angela’s family home, the Majestic Hotel near the town of Kilnalough, both of which have seen better days. The decline of the Majestic appears to be metaphor for the decline of the established Anglo-Irish order, threatened by ‘he Troubles’ – the name given at the time to the conflict between the republican IRA and the British imperial forces, specifically the Black and Tans. The ‘Troubles’ of the book’s title can be applied equally to the political situation, the decline facing the hotel and the family who run it, and the emotional life of the Major himself.
There are no likeable characters. Humour there certainly is. Edward is Angela’s father, somewhat pathetic and totally out of control of the business and of his family. He develops a fondness for the Major, who tries to iron out the most outrageous goings-on. And yet the Major himself is a passive character, always seeking to retain the good opinion of others no matter how outrageously they behave, putting manners and ‘political correctness’ before honesty and compassion, and missing out on the chance of a happy relationship with Sarah, a Catholic girl for whom he develops an attraction from the start of his visit.
I struggled through to the end. There are some vivid, haunting scenes (many of them imbued with dark humour – the invasion of cats and Edward and the Major’s attempts to get rid of them with a shotgun, for instance). There is little superfluity in the writing, though elements of the plot do seem unnecessary, such as Viola O’Neill’s apparent pregnancy diagnosed by Dr Ryan a few pages before the end of the book – is this supposed to show us that the doctor is indeed senile, or that Viola’s innocence is not what it seemed – and if the latter, what possible relevance does this have to the main story, where this character appears no more than a couple of times on the sidelines? That the wild behaviour of the twins ends up with the two of them in bed with the Major seems to show us a debauched side to his character – and yet he is portrayed as upright throughout, concerned only about how this will look to others.
I wonder whether this book really deserved the ‘lost’ Booker prize for 1970. To be fair, I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted books, and perhaps I never will.
We are due to read The Siege of Krishnapur for a book group meeting in January. I have read it before, and found it more appealing than Troubles. I started The Singapore Grip shortly after the Siege of Krishnapur (four or five years ago) but gave up on that, possibly for largely the same reasons as I am not excited by Troubles. I think I need a character to whom I can relate, or at least try to understand and perhaps feel a little sympathy for.