Feb 12, 2010

J.G. Farrell

In early December, I came across a review by The Sunday Times columnist, Robert Harris, on Lavinia Greacen's J.G. Farrell In His Own Words, a compilation of author, J.G. Farrell's letters and diaries. This pulled me in:
On August 11, 1979 the Booker prize-winning novelist JG Farrell was fishing from a rock close to his home in Kilcrohane, in southwest Ireland, when a wave knocked him into the sea. A woman who was nearby with her two children ran over to help. Farrell’s arms and lungs had been weakened by polio as a teenager. According to a laconic note made by a friend of his, a solicitor: “She said ‘Lie on back and I will get help.’ Did not respond. Did not appear to attempt to swim. No visible efforts. Screams. She tried to reach down. 4-5 yards. Suddenly he was swept under and disappeared.”
This sealed the deal:
"In his seaside house, without a tele­phone (the waiting list was two years) and with no distractions (his builder was “the closest thing I have to a friend round here”), Farrell grew his own vegetables, caught his own fish supper in the sea each day, and worked on his new book. His last letter was written on August 10, 1979 to his publisher: “I’m running a bit behind schedule — but I’m still confident that barring some unforeseen disaster I’ll provide you with a novel of 80,000 to 100,000 words before the end of the year.” The following afternoon, with a storm rising in the Irish Sea, he went down to his favorite rock to fish. "
A great Irish writer swallowed up by the wild Irish Sea ... An incomplete manuscript at home ... The "barring some unforeseen disaster" letter the day before his death. I needed to read this haunting collection of previously unpublished letters ranging from childhood to the day before his death. But first, I had to read his three greatest novels— The Empire Trilogy.

J.G.Farrell's Empire Trilogy at NYRB

I can't believe I wasted valuable tea/Guinness/shopping time when I was home, traipsing around my hometown looking for this collection of books, when with one click I found the them online at New York Review of Books. For thirty percent off.

I was surprised, relieved, and saddened in my search for J.G. (a.k.a. Jim) Farrell at home. Surprised that I couldn't find any of the three books in the trilogy—Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, or The Singapore Grip, and worse, that I couldn't find anyone who had even heard of J.G. Farrell. Relieved that I wasn't the only eejit with a gaping big hole in her Irish bookshelf/head. Saddened that a great Irish author is apparently greatly underappreciated in his own country, or at least in my county. (Wait, I tried Limerick too, so maybe he's greatly unknown in Munster.)

I wondered why his books are not front and center on that shelf of "Irish Interest" you see at the airport, when The Siege of Krishnapur (the second book in The Empire Trilogy) won a Booker Prize in 1973, and was selected as one of only six previous winners to compete in the 2008 international “Best of Booker” competition. Also, a few weeks ago, Troubles (the first book in the trilogy) was longlisted for "The Lost Man Booker Prize 2010," with the shortlist announcement expected in March.

I also wondered—after reading quotes from John Banville and Salman Rushdie testifying to Farrell's literary greatness—why Farrell never showed up in my Yeats-and-Peig-Sayers-heavy education or in Colm Toibin's compilation of Ireland's Greatest Fiction ... until, I did some (ahem) research and realized (ahem) that Farrell was actually born in Liverpool.

It didn't sit right. I couldn't imagine why the great Irish Sea would pull an Englishman away to Tír na nÓg (the land of eternal youth), so I dug a little deeper. Turns out, Farrell was born in Liverpool into an Irish family. His parents moved to Ireland when he was 12, and so Farrell spent much of his life in Ireland, and hello—he had bought a house and moved there before he died! Mostly, according to Cork University Press—publishers of Lavinia Greacen's compilation—Farrell's letters show that he considered himself Irish. That's Irish enough for my shelf.

A picture of a plaque close to where Jim lost his life, from Cork University Press

So, instead of questioning just how green Farrell was, I'm going to be glad I've found a new great Irish writer to add to my bookshelf and life. Then, I'm going to cry for him when I read that last letter...

Stock your shelf:
J.G.Farrell's Empire Trilogy
JG Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries


nicholas simpson said...

English father, Irish mother, born and educated in England. Sounds pretty English to me. But that's to quibble. What a great writer. Just read Troubles and Singapore, going on to Siege. Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Farrell considered himself "half Irish and half English", and said so in a comment noted by Dominic Head in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000 (130).

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