Oct/Nov 2005

Empire Statement

At his death 1979, J. G. Farrell was called his generation's greatest historical novelist. Does the claim hold up?

Matthew Price


Although Irish poet and man of letters Derek Mahon calls him the "finest novelist of recent times," J. G. Farrell has lacked the high profile of other English writers of the late twentieth century. He is sometimes mistaken for James T. Farrell—remarkably, the two died within a few weeks of each other in 1979—but the working-class writer from the rough-and-tumble streets of Chicago's south side couldn't have been more different from James Gordon Farrell, who haughtily referred to his near-namesake as that "other James Farrell."

To Mahon, Farrell was an "aristocrat of the spirit." Born in 1935, he was half English, half Anglo-Irish, an athletic, strong-willed, and conspicuously handsome man who overcame polio as an Oxford undergraduate in the '50s. He lived in France for a time in the '60s, where, under the spell of Camus and the existentialists, he wrote three middling—and now little-read—novels, which he published in quick succession. Turning to the British past, Farrell attempted something altogether different the following decade with his "Empire" trilogy—Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker prize in 1973, and The Singapore Grip (1978), his final novel—each of which revolves around a moment of crisis and setback for the British Empire. Farrell's death at forty-four—he drowned after a wave swept him from a rock while he was fishing on Ireland's Bantry Bay—cut short the career of a writer many thought was just beginning to flourish.

Reports of his death shocked London's literary circles. Farrell tended to inspire raptures from those who knew him (his literary admirers included Margaret Drabble and Michael Frayn), and Farrell's recent biographer, Lavinia Greacen, reports that "among Jim's many friends the news of his death had the impact of Kennedy's assassination or Elvis Presley's death." The papers carried effusive tributes to Farrell's talents, with one obituarist going so far as to claim that had the author lived on, "he might well have been regarded as the greatest historical novelist of his generation." But reading Farrell's newly reissued trilogy today, it can be hard to find validation of this sweeping judgment. Farrell was a very good, often perversely mordant writer, but not a great one. Though he approached his country's past with an idiosyncratic touch as well as an undeceived eye about the pretensions of imperialism, he was overly prone to bombastic flourishes. His ideas sometimes mix uneasily with his characters, who are often forced to bear the weight of Farrell's various cultural theories: They think in complete sentences, if not long paragraphs. This problem deforms The Siege of Krishnapur and nearly wrecks The Singapore Grip, his most ambitious, strained attempt to grasp the driving essence of the British imperial experience.

Farrell undertook his project at a remarkable time in British literary history. As the British Empire was winding down in the '60s, it was gaining a new literature about the imperial estate in such novels as V. S. Naipaul's Mimic Men and In a Free State, the latter a lacerating, melancholy exploration of displacement; meanwhile Paul Scott was exploring the end of British rule in India with his Raj Quartet. Farrell once remarked that "being half English, half Irish, I'm able to look at the same thing from both sides—from that of the colonist and the colonized." But each of his novels is really an X-ray of what we might loosely call the imperial mindset and the springs of its ideology. What Farrell was really after, as the critic John Bayley has put it, was "how a particular culture saw itself, spoke, and showed off to itself."

The backdrops Farrell chooses—three distinct moments of maximum upheaval in British history—provide each of the installments ready-made drama and an underlying mood of violent hysteria. In Troubles, it's the Irish War of Independence of 1919–21, which pitted IRA guerrillas against the Royal Irish Constabulary and a force of brutal auxiliaries called the Black and Tans; for The Siege of Krishnapur, the Indian rebellion of 1857, when South Asian soldiers revolted against their British commanders; and for The Singapore Grip, the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore in 1942, which dealt a shattering blow to British morale. The cumulative effects of these novels emphasize the fragility and delusions of imperialism.

If not quite the masterpiece John Banville dubs it in his introduction, Troubles is surely Farrell's best—and funniest—book, one that can be enjoyed as both a farcical romp and a serious novel of politics. Madcap and blackly comic, shot through with piercing evocations of the Irish landscape, it offers a glimpse at the dying spasms of that distinct stratum known as the Anglo-Irish, the Protestant tribe that gave Ireland some of its most legendary figures, among them Yeats, Grattan, and Parnell. Set in a ramshackle, once grand seaside hotel called the Majestic (Farrell cannot resist the obvious symbol), Troubles echoes Elizabeth Bowen's Last September, which was also set during the war of independence.

But if Bowen is a plangent elegist who offers a tribute to the battered, regal dignity of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Farrell shows them in a more ridiculous light. The hotel's proprietor is Edward Spencer, a wealthy landowner and bellicose reactionary who rages over the "Shinners" (the Sinn Fein) and is firmly set against an independent Irish republic. With tourists scared off by the fighting, the Majestic has fallen into a state of disrepair. Few new guests arrive. The once lush Palm Court has overrun its borders, sending a wild torrent of foliage into the walls and floors. The hotel is slowly collapsing and his life is in chaos, yet Spencer puts up a brave front. To his outrage, his son elopes with a Catholic woman, and he endures raids on his property by IRA gunmen, who taunt him by vandalizing a statue of Queen Victoria in the hotel courtyard. Throughout, Spencer's foil is Major Brendan Archer, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who comes to the Majestic in 1919 to marry Spencer's daughter Angela, to whom he hastily proposed while on leave. Contending with a "badly rattled memory," Archer isn't quite sure what his position is—he is rootless and lost, and after his fiancée dies suddenly, he finds himself lured into the bizarre world of the Majestic and its motley assortment of hangers-on and decidedly eccentric staff. Much of the novel's action is filtered through the Major's fragile consciousness, and his sense of bafflement at the situation of Ireland as it revolts against British rule, where the front line could be in a backyard or Dublin street. The violent back-and-forth—IRA atrocities are met with increasingly violent populations—is "a situation which defied comprehension, a war without battles or trenches." The enemy is everywhere, but unseen: "Look, he thought, how does one recognize them? They wear no uniform. They're like spies. They should be shot like spies. They look like anyone at all." (However harsh we might judge Archer's conclusions, his sense of frustration and helplessness has an obvious resonance today.) Archer has no illusions about the independence movement or Sinn Fein. He despairs of the inability of the British to police an Ireland devolving into warring factions, each with its own brand of justice: "A man one met in the street in Kilnalough might with equal justification (provided it fitted into his own private view of things) offer you a piece of apple pie or slit your throat. But given the way things were going (the Major could not help but feel) he would be more likely to slit your throat." Still, he grows weary of Spencer's bigotry and contempt. After Spencer prates on about "giving the Shinners something to think about," Archer retorts, "I'm sure they will . . . but the cure may be as bad as the disease." Farrell mixes his comic tones and the broader sweep of history with skill, as he weaves newspaper accounts throughout the narrative of a world aflame in revolt: The Bolsheviks have seized power in Russia, while India simmers with troubles of its own. In the Majestic, he creates a potent symbol for a world gone topsy-turvy. The Spencers of Ireland are besieged and encircled, once proud, now marginal, doomed to powerlessness and minority status in a new Ireland that has no need for them.

With The Siege of Krishnapur (which started out with the title Difficulties), Farrell turned to a literal encirclement, one of the most famous in British history, that of the British residency at Lucknow, India, in 1857. Muslim and Hindu sepoys (troops), outraged when they were given a mixture of pork lard and cow's fat to grease their rifles, revolted and laid siege to several colonial enclaves. For the British (who had 34,000 soldiers compared to 257,000 Indians), the large-scale uprising sent ripples of fear through the imperial classes. Lucknow held out for nearly six months, inspiring sensational headlines back in England, as well as a torrent of melodramatic novels, whose florid style Farrell handily parodies.

In Siege, Farrell transformed Lucknow into the fictional town of Krishnapur. The novel opens with some of the best—and most haunting—pages Farrell has written. Playing subtly with time frames and perspectives, he offers a sketch of the town from afar, but sometime—it is not clear when—after the main action of the book. What looks solid—"those distant white walls which are clearly made of bricks"—is actually little more than a mirage. When one approaches, "he will see that this supposed town is utterly deserted; it is merely a melancholy cluster of white domes and planes surrounded by a few trees. There are no people to be seen. Everything lies perfectly still . . . even the rustling leaves have a dead sound." The import is clear: All empires turn to dust.

The Siege of Krishnapur is both an action story and a less successful novel of ideas. Where Farrell wrote Troubles intuitively, from his bones, he composed Siege from the archives, attempting a full-scale historical re-creation. But his labored pastiche of a Victorian novel groans under the accumulations of his prodigious research, which extend from social protocols to phrenology to nineteenth-century ecclesiastical disputes. Gathered together in the compound at Krishnapur are not only a group of terrified men and women, but also an intellectual bric-a-brac of high Victorian culture.

His characters sometimes are not much more than placards, each playing his allotted role as a signpost for various tendencies. The central figure is Mr. Hopkins, the Collector (in British India, the chief official of a district), who, like Spencer, is slightly absurd, though he is drawn with much less care. He is given to rotund pronouncements about progress and civilization: "We are raising ourselves, however painfully, so that mankind may enjoy in the future a superior life which now we can hardly conceive! The foundations on which the new men will build their lives are Faith, Science, Respectability, Geology, Mechanical Invention, Ventilation and Rotation of Crops!" (Farrell makes sport of such long-windedness by having Hopkins's companion, a young woman he just has taken on a tour of an opium factory, fall asleep in the carriage as he drones on.) To be sure, such ideas underwrote the British imperial venture in India, but Farrell's way with his characters can be as heavy-handed and obvious as their high-flown conceits on the gospel of progress.

As the sepoys encircle Krishnapur, various ideas are broached and batted around as Farrell subjects the Victorian mind to a methodical dissection. The priest slowly goes mad and raves on about theological matters. As cholera spreads throughout the compound, two opposing doctors bicker over differing treatments. The Collector retreats into a fog of nostrums and bizarre hallucinations. Again, Farrell, in a rather convincing imitation of Dickens, can't resist jabbing at his misguided faith in positivism: "Nothing was able to resist statistics, not even Death itself, for the Collector, armed with statistics, could pick up Death, sniff it, dissect it, pour acid on it, or see if it was soluble." Of course, we are supposed to find such notions laughable, but the pretensions of Victorian Britain are easy targets.

Still, there is a surreal intensity to The Siege of Krishnapur that gives it a peculiar force. One can almost smell the acrid smoke and stench of death; when he's not smothering his narrative in information, Farrell's writing is alive to detail and mood. Here, with uncanny precision, he draws a scene of fearful watching as the Collector peers out into enemy camp: "Tonight, as always, in the darkness around the enclave he could see the bonfires burning. Were they signals? Nobody knew. But every night they reappeared. Other, more distant bonfires could be seen from the roof, burning mysteriously by themselves out there on the empty plain where in normal times there was nothing but darkness." There are also wildly over-the-top moments, at once gruesome and funny, perhaps none more so than when the Collector, after the compound exhausts its supplies of conventional ammunition, fashions a new kind of ordnance out of sweetness and light, ordering his men to deploy the metallic heads from the statues of the greats of Western literature in their cannons: "The most effective of all had been Shakespeare's; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing single file through the jungle." This is Farrell at his most wickedly cutting.

The Siege of Krishnapur is ultimately a work that aims to shatter illusions. The idea that Britain was bringing enlightenment to India is rendered null and void: "India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilization could no longer be sustained." The Collector survives and lives into old age, unburdened by any quaint notions he used to entertain about his civilizing mission; they were buried along with the dead of Krishnapur. "Culture is a sham," he says to an old siege hand he bumps into in London at the novel's close. "It's a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness."

Such cynicism also courses through the pages of The Singapore Grip, Farrell's longest and most vastly peopled novel, which might be seen as an extended meditation of sorts on Marlow's remark in Heart of Darkness that "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking of it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." At once a wartime melodrama and an inquiry into the economics of the British Empire, The Singapore Grip reads like a soap opera written by a committee of Marxists. Farrell wants to pull back the curtain and show us the naked economic self-interest and exploitation that enriched Britain's imperial classes, who live in leafy Singapore suburbs like Tanglin, while "down there in the city . . . seething, devouring, copulating, businesses rose and fell, sank their teeth into each other, swallowed, broke away, gulped down other firms, or mounted each other to procreate smaller companies."

The novel pivots on the concerns of one of these companies, the old firm of Blackett and Webb, and its steward Walter Blackett. Blackett's mind teems with exclamation points and comically pompous self-estimates ("Surely it was unjust that history should only relate the exploits of bungling soldiers, monarchs and politicians, ignoring the merchant whose activities were the very bedrock of civilization and progress!"). He schemes to rig the rubber market as Europe slides toward war and combatants pay top dollar for rubber. Throughout, Farrell is preoccupied with themes of succession and continuity. When Blackett's partner suddenly dies, he tries to draw Webb's son Matthew into the business. But the younger Webb is a romantic idealist who is reluctant to soil his hands in the dirty business of imperial commerce. Farrell lays bare the sordidness of the tropical commodities that kept a firm like Blackett and Webb afloat. He copiously details the exploitation of a vast legion of coolies who harvested Burmese rice and tapped the rubber trees that formed the core of Malaya's plantation economy.

Farrell read a small library of books as he worked on The Singapore Grip—and it shows. His last novel buckles with speculation on history and the nature of colonial economics. Into his characters' fevered heads Farrell inserts essayistic slabs and bluntly posed thesis questions. Here, Matthew, one of Farrell's typically baffled characters, tries to look at the issue from all sides: "Was a colony like Malaya, as the Communists claimed, a mere sweat-shop for cheap labour operated in the interests of capitalism by cynical Western governments? Or was Western capital (which included his own capital, too, now that his father had died; he must not forget that!) . . . as Walter insisted, a fructifying influence bringing life and hope to millions by making hitherto unused land productive?" Too often the novel feels like a historical tract struggling to liberate itself from the shackles of Farrell's bibliography and fully emerge as work of fiction.

As with Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, Farrell cleverly manipulates ironies of historical perspective. We are reminded from the very first that Singapore "was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map." Its roots are shallow; like Krishnapur, it too may turn to dust and blow away. Farrell evidences an awareness of other empires, of the growing power of the United States (which, though many Americans might blanch at the suggestion, today stands charged with imperial designs on Middle East oil), as well as the more immediate threat of Japan. He makes few moral distinctions between the two competing empires that would go to war: The Japanese, like the British, are simply pursuing their own economic interests. Even Blackett, his eye on the bottom line, entertains the notion of doing business with the Japanese, should they succeed the British.

After the publication of The Singapore Grip, one critic wrote that "the novel may be Farrell's private attempt at War and Peace." That may have been true, but his Tolstoyan ambition got the better of him. Still, in the book's closing sections, Farrell poignantly conveys the stunned reactions of his characters to the Japanese invasion. Singapore is in flames, its commercial districts charred ruins, the warehouses of Blackett and Webb reduced to rubble. Blackett, like the Collector, wanders in the chaos and drifts "about the city like a shadow or [broods] alone," trying to comprehend the destruction of his firm's "hitherto secure grip on its own destiny" and to regain lost certainties: "If he succeeded in understanding what had gone wrong then perhaps he would once more be able to gain control of events instead of drifting helplessly, now this way, now that." But Blackett is helpless, as is Singapore, which the British surrendered in one of its most ignominious defeats. It was, the narrator muses, "almost . . . you might say with hindsight, the last days of the British empire in these parts." In many ways it was. Although the British eventually defeated the Japanese in a bloody campaign, the sun had already set on British Asia.

Farrell's complex trilogy suggests to us that the understanding of a given historical situation is always elusive. Farrell was something of an epistemological pessimist, and if the "Empire" trilogy is about how a culture spoke to itself about itself, it did not always know what it was saying. As he wrote in the concluding lines of The Siege of Krishnapur, "A people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by by other forces, of which it has little knowledge."

Matthew Price is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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