Sunday, January 25, 2015

Catch some of my life

James Gordon Farrell, who might have reached eighty today had he not died young in a storm accident, would have become one of the really great novelists writing in the English language today - according to a claim by Salman Rushdie widely quoted on internet sites. The editor of a collection of Farrell’s letters and ‘diary fragments’, published a few years ago by Cork University Press, argues that her book reveals Farrell’s ‘lost autobiographical voice.’ In a first entry, Farrell writes of using the diary to ‘catch some of my life’, and in another he catches a moment of inspiration, one that will lead to his best book.

Farrell was born in Liverpool on 25 January 1935 into an Anglo-Irish family. Although his family moved to County Dublin after the war, he was enrolled at Rossall boarding school in Lancashire from the age of 12, spending holidays in Ireland. After Rossall, he taught in Dublin, and also worked at a radar station in the Canadian Arctic. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1956, but contracted polio which left him partially crippled. On leaving Oxford with a low class degree, he went to live and teach in France, the setting for his first novel A Man from Elsewhere.

Thereafter, Farrell led a peripatetic life, variously in Paris, Morocco, Dublin and London. In 1966, he won a Harkness Fellowship to visit the US, and although this did not lead him, as he hoped, to study at Yale Drama School, it did provide him with the stimulus to write Troubles (about Ireland’s struggle for independence), the book that would bring him literary fame. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and with the proceeds he went to India, the setting for his next novel on colonial power, The Siege of Krishnapur. This won the UK’s Booker Prize in 1973. A third, thematically similar, novel followed - The Singapore Grip.

In 1979, Farrell decided to move from London (where he had been based since around 1970) to the southwest of Ireland. A few months later, he was found dead, after being swept from rocks in a storm while fishing (see a Sunday Times report of his death). He never married, though he had affairs, and a wide circle of literary friends. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, which quotes Salmon Rushdie as saying, in 2008, that had Farrell not died so young,‘he would today be one of the really major novelists of the English language.’ There are various other articles online about Farrell, some reporting on how Troubles won, in 2010, the Lost Booker Prize for 1970 - at The GuardianThe Daily Telegraph, and BBC(‘Lost’ because books published in that year missed out on being considered thanks to a rule change.) A chapter on Farrell in Writing Liverpool: Essays and Interviews can be read at Googlebooks.

Farrell does not appear to have been a committed diarist, but, in 2009, Cork University Press published J. G. Farrell in his Own Words - Selected Letters and Diaries, as edited by Lavinia Greacen. Most of the book is taken up with letters, and Graecen, herself, refers to the rest as ‘diary fragments’. Reviews can be found online at The Spectator and Estudios Irlandeses websites.

Although the name J. G. Farrell tends to come with an austerely confident ring to it, Greacen says the ‘lost autobiographical voice’ in this book reveals him to be warm and sometimes full of self doubt. In a very short foreword, John Banville explains that he met Farrell once, a few days before he won the Booker Prize for The Siege of Krishnapur. He notes, however, that Farrell himself thought Troubles was a better book.

Here are two extracts from
J. G. Farrell in his Own Words - Selected Letters and Diaries. I’ve chosen the first because it explains Farrell’s motivations for starting a diary; and the second for it records a pivotal moment in the genesis of Troubles. However, I have also chosen the second because of a link with my own life: the very same Surf Hotel on Block Island, mentioned by Farrell, was where I was taken having been expelled from my father’s island house - I never saw or spoke to him again (see my diaries).

22 December 1966
‘This is addressed to an absent third party . . . in all respects like me, but not me. Alright then, the idea of this diary is to help me to get control of my talent for writing. I hope that it will help me in the following ways:
1) That I shall bring myself face to face with things that I normally discard through sheer mental laziness.
2) That I shall be able to remember things people say that make an impression on me as well as things I read.
3) Get in the habit of discussing problems with myself.
4) Catch some of my life before I forget it. I’m appalled to think how little I can remember of my first trip to America, even though it was only ten years ago. However, avoid being garrulous or it will become a chore. Avoid self-pity and sentimentality. Avoid haranguing myself uselessly like this.

On Monday I had lunch with Mike Roemer. He was busy and somewhat harassed; I noticed for the first time how he tends to talk too loud, as if afraid that he won’t be able to assert himself if he doesn’t. He had been to see Polanski’s Cul de Sac and hadn’t liked it. I was unable to understand his reasons for not liking it. He said he thought it was badly written; that it hadn’t gone far enough if it was supposed to be black humour etc. Well, perhaps I do partly see what he means. For all that, he couldn’t convince me (he didn’t try) that it was a bad film. I still find parts of it sublime: the kitchen scene at the beginning and the visit of friends [. . .] Roemer told me had once dined with E. M. Forster and been very impressed with his modesty and simplicity. F. had only wanted to talk about films. In the course of lunch R. repeated his theory that writers use up their experience when young, then go through a middle period of hard work before they can learn to invent their own material. In return I talked to him of intuitive writers, citing Edna O’Brien as one who had gone off the rails once she had begun to think about it. [. . .] I don’t think either of us were particularly convinced by this. Nothing, anyway, will convince R. that writing is not a field in which one only succeeds by hard and ruthless work. With deep misgivings I gave him a copy of The Lung.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s diary in the train to N. Caroline to spend Christmas with Bob. Odd and curious flashes of contempt for the lower classes appear every now and then that seem sadly out of date (these are the only things that seem unusual for a person like V. W. by today’s standards).’

11 May 1967
‘Over a month since my last entry - an interval in which things went downhill at a fairly brisk pace, with the roaches multiplying in my room at the Belvedere faster than I could control them . . . In this time I took out Anita Gross a couple of times. She’s attractive, sure. But there’s something slightly wrong somewhere [. . .]

A week ago I came to Block Island to stay at the Surf Hotel under the aegis of Mr and Mrs Sears. He is a fat, genial chap and she is somewhat severe with elegantly rolled white hair that makes her look like an immigrant from Versailles. [. . .] At first I found myself eating with an English couple called Porter: she is a psychiatrist, he described himself as a ‘poet’ but I didn’t question him about this and he didn’t volunteer any further information. [. . .]

I’ve covered most of the island on foot in the past week and feel much healthier for it. The weather has been a mixture of terrible storms and sunny, windy days. Last weekend the ferry was unable to make the return trip because of a storm. Now the rain has returned I think I shall return to NY tomorrow.

While here I have made yet another ‘fresh start’ on my book - partly inspired by the charred remains of the Ocean View Hotel which stands, or stood, on a cliff overlooking the old harbour where the ferry comes in. It burned down a year or so ago. “A place with a thousand rooms,” Mr Porter (the poet) said. “200 to 300” said his wife. This morning I went up to look at the remains while the sun was still shining. Old bedsprings twisted with heat; puddles of molten glass; washbowls that had fallen through to the foundations; a flight of stone steps leading up to thin air; twisted pipes; lots of nails lying everywhere and a few charred beams. I think the way the glass had collected like candlegreas under the windows impressed me most. When you picked it up it was inclined to flake away into smaller pieces in your hand. I must remember to ask someone how many storeys it had. Anyway this gave me an idea, which seems to me a good one, for the dwelling place of the family.’ [Ocean View Hotel did, in fact, provide the catalyst for the Majestic Hotel in Troubles, and give him the structure for the novel.]

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