Troubles – J G Farrell

16 August 2010
To ‘Buy Victory Loan!’ (p 75)
Roughly the first third of Part 1, A Member of the Quality, and I’m enjoying it. The Major is on a fool’s errand. (We’re told his name early on, but only occasionally hear his Christian name, Brendan, on the rare occasions when someone speaks to him directly.) He’s got himself engaged, sort of, to an Anglo-Irishwoman – checking with her whether she really is his fiancée would have been ‘hair-splitting’ – so he’s gone to, um, see if what she expects from him. He can’t really believe that their exchange of letters during the last two years of WW1 – relentlessly factual on her side, doggedly dutiful on his – means she expects him to marry her. He, um, hopes not really.

The war hangs over him. He suffered from shell-shock after it – it’s July 1919 now – and, though Farrell doesn’t wallow in the horror in the way some recent authors have done, there are occasional moments when he feels himself a stranger in the world of everyday reality. At one appalling tea-party in England he can’t stop looking at the young women: all he can think about is how firm and strong their limbs seem to be, and how easily detachable they really are….

In Ireland he’s a hapless innocent in the tradition of Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall or Henry Boot in Scoop: things happen to him, and whenever he decides it’s time to sort things out, we know it isn’t going to happen. He’s spent days in the crumbling hotel that’s also straight out of Waugh, and he hasn’t seen his ‘fiancée’ – always referred to in inverted commas – since a couple of brief, impersonal encounters on the first day. Her father is a Blimpish Imperialist complaining about the Irish; her brother is an embarrassment, having not volunteered to fight – cue uncomfortable excuses following the Major’s supposed reference to the fact – and the hotel is otherwise peopled with the cast of Fawlty Towers (a series that first appeared five years after this novel). And there’s Sarah – a Catholic, as she’s careful to let him know, pretending she expects him to be shocked – who is, or isn’t, an invalid. She has a fine line in telling it how it is, to everyone’s embarrassment. The Major is nothing if not ultra-conventional, so he decides she’s awful.

Farrell is a completely confident narrator. He lets us know exactly how we need to consider these people without having to spell anything out. When Edward, the father, hears there are suspicious people in the grounds, he organises a posse, clearly not for the first time. To nobody’s surprise, especially the long-suffering police sergeant’s, all they end up doing is disturbing a few rabbits. Later Ripon, the embarrassing brother, tells a funny story about the police chasing two ‘Shinners’, resulting in one of them being beaten up with tennis equipment by public-spirited Anglo-Irish whose game he blunders into in his panic. They were innocent workmen, of course. The British attitude to the Nationalists is presented as farce, but we guess it won’t stay farcical for long.

Does the Major represent the confusion of the British in Ireland? He’s arrived there with all the usual prejudices – he likes thinking, ‘How Irish!’ – and has no understanding of anything that has gone on before. The place is already a mess when he gets there, and he doesn’t expect to be the one to sort any of it out. He wants to leave – he’s embarrassed that Angela, the ‘fiancée’, has disappeared, apparently to her sick-bed – but he never gets as far as even finding the times of trains out, never mind booking his trip back to England. I’m wondering if he’s going to be like the bourgeois diners in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, never able to leave though he knows that’s the only sensible thing to do.

18 August
To ‘Indian Unrest’ (p 139)
Well, he does leave, eventually. Not that it’s easy: he gets as far as Dublin on a pretext – Edward books him a hotel room overlooking an appallingly triumphalist, point-scoring victory ceremony – and is about to book his ticket to London when he hears his ‘fiancée’ has died and he has to go back for the funeral. Uh-oh, I thought, he’s stuck forever. But no, he gets away because his aged aunt in Bayswater is genuinely ill. She’s died by the point I’ve reached now, but the chronology has started to become a bit less straightforward, and so has the way in which information reaches him. And us. In fact, most of this section is to do with misunderstandings, misconceptions, missed everything really. It’s a process that began much earlier in the novel, but the stories people tell and the way they are told have begun to be a part of the fabric.

Having heard by telegram the news of Angela’s death, the Major finds out almost by accident at the funeral – ‘Didn’t you know?’ – that she had leukaemia. He finds out about Ripon and the heiress to the local flourmill fortune first via an embarrassing conversation with Sarah, which he doesn’t believe, then in snatched conversations at the funeral – he decides not to help Ripon in any attempt to sweeten the bitter pill of the girl’s Catholicism with his father – then in a long and hectic letter from Sarah. Her first letter to him in London, after he ignores a telegram from her not to open it, is modulated first through her own hysterically flippant tone and second through Farrell’s decision to offer it to us as reported speech. Stories of what is happening in Ireland come via anecdotes, Sarah’s partisan descriptions – to her, the Brits are ‘the enemy’ – or newspaper reports, equally unreliable. And so on. If the Major was an innocent at the start, he knows little more now, a third of the way through.

Almost by accident, he invites Sarah to stay with him and the (not yet dead) aunt on her way to France. She now walks perfectly well, and her frankness as he drinks too much at dinner leads to him making the mistake of thinking he’s found an understanding listener. He speaks more openly than he ever has before, and what he doesn’t tell her face-to-face he writes in a letter. Soon the letter is thick enough to need wrapping as a parcel, which he can do nothing with: she doesn’t send him her address in France.

In what I think is the only chapter not written from the Major’s point of view we’ve had fractured communications of an even more ludicrous sort. Farrell gives us, straight, the efforts of the flour-mill owner, Noonan, to have it out with Ripon’s father. He’s late, and Edward tires of waiting and puts his gardening clothes on…. They mistake one another for a gardener and an overgrown telegraph-boy, and they spend farcical pages failing to find each other as they search the hotel. They never do meet, and we only get a garbled version – Sarah is careful to let the Major know she’s only giving him one possible version – of how Ripon and the pregnant heiress finally escape and marry. (In a farcical offshoot of this chapter we get the twins, appallingly badly behaved and liable to upset the locals with practical jokes against the priest. And who is it who tells the story of Edward’s foray into the local pub, which ends with him and others from the hotel singing God Save the King, to the locals’ bemusement and delight?)

Meanwhile, the newspaper clippings that separate the chapters (if they can be called chapters) offer an oblique commentary: they remind us what a difference 50 years make as we read stories of crass racism and colonial arrogance from around the Empire; or they give us an insight into the Major, as when he knows exactly which side to cheer for in the fighting in Chicago between Blacks and whites; or, well, they just remind us of an almost alien system of beliefs.

22 August
To the end of Part 1
We get a new variation on The Exterminating Angel: having managed to escape, the Major goes back the following summer. He’s still there now, as everything gets steadily (or lurchingly) worse around him. He’s always seemed like a representative of the British in Ireland and now, if you asked him what he thought he was doing there, I bet he wouldn’t be able to tell you. This novel was written in 1970, of course, and the threats and minor acts of terrorism that are relegated to the inside pages of the papers the Major reads, and the mystified responses of the British, are terribly familiar. Except in 1920 we know where the struggle is going: at least we have the benefit of hindsight.

Events, dear boy. The Majestic – I don’t think I mentioned the name before, in all its ill-starred arrogance – has become, as we always knew it would, a microcosm. (I also didn’t mention that Farrell tells us in the first sentences of the novel that it gets burnt down in the end. No surprise there, then.) Edward edges closer to exhaustion and despair as the hotel’s income dwindles to almost nothing. He tells the staff that they must economise – but how, when he hardly spends anything? The final straw, as it were, in Part 1 is when the two meagre fields of corn are torched. In a futile gesture the local tenant farmers had refused to plant any in their own fields and now need to build up their own stocks; Edward, having been incensed when they start to steal his, later lets it be known – after the Major has spoken up for once in his life – that he will distribute it to the most needy after harvest. Now, he can’t – so, as usual, everybody loses.

Life in the hotel becomes more bizarre. When the Major first arrives back, Edward proudly shows him his new family of pigs. Inside the hotel, cats are breeding like rabbits. (Why do marauding cats so often become a symbol of dilapidation and lack of care?) We get a slightly more rounded impression of the ancient residents. Two of them, against the odds, keep up a pretence of remaining young while others simply become more needy. And there are new residents, RIC Auxiliaries recruited from the fag-end of the British officer class. They treat the place as if they own it, which they also do at the golf club or, the suggestion is, wherever they appear. Not a lot to laugh at there.

Meanwhile the twins, sent down from school for a misdemeanour too far, fill their time as best they can. They flirt with the Major, but he has convinced himself it isn’t aimed at him personally. He’s a fairly young man but, well, maybe it isn’t. There’s a scene in which they practise dancing steps with him – this is when even the Major notices their sexuality – and another time when they put on swimming costumes (gulp) and take him down to the beach. While there he hears that Sarah is back from France and is visiting. He bounds up the steps in his preposterous costume but, inevitably, by the time he comes back in proper clothes she’s gone. At least we know why he’s in Ireland now: another fool’s errand. (When he finds Angela’s last letter, which he’d accidentally left behind after the funeral, he only glances at it while talking to somebody else.)

And the Troubles rumble on. They aren’t called that; in the papers they are crimes and outrages, and Farrell has a clipping of a day’s acts of insurgence presented as a numbered list. Occasionally it looks as though elements of farce are still feasible: there are rumours that sound made up, like the alleged (non-lethal) poisoning of the water at Dublin Castle, so that the place is having to be run by the whiskey-drinkers who never touch a drop of the stuff. Farrell decides to end Part 1 with Edward telephoning the Castle about the boorish behaviour of the billeted officers. Whoever answers is ‘drunk as a lord….’

23 August
Part 2, to ‘The Premier in Ireland’
Part 2’s subtitle is Troubles, and there are at least three parallel stories that could all be called that. Two of them we know about – the Majestic, and Ireland as a whole – but the third is pressing harder and harder on the Major’s attention: his non-existent affair with Sarah. Farrell has him contemplating his own inexperience – if only he know what to do! – and he’s ending up in a spiral of indecision and passivity. If she shows him any affection, which she sometimes does, even kissing him passionately at times, he dares to hope he has a chance to marry her and take her away. But there’s something very serious going on between her and Edward – early in Part 1 they disappear to Dublin on a pretext that proves to be false – and often her affectionate moves on the Major seem to be designed to inflame Edward. This has happened just before ‘The Premier in Ireland’: after an affectionate, silly afternoon she lets him kiss her for minutes, no doubt knowing full well that Edward can see. She disappears with Edward, leaving the Major beached among the dusty furniture again.

Reading this is becoming more and more claustrophobic. We keep wondering why he doesn’t just leave… and, after the Major asks himself the same question we’re still stuck. He’s taken to hiding in a nest-like linen room – more like a cosy womb, where he even strips naked – and chastely contemplates a future with, or without, Sarah. (I’m not convinced by Farrell’s insistence that he won’t allow himself erotic fantasies. He may have been hollowed out by the War, but he still has blood pumping through him… among, presumably, other fluids.)

Farrell describes new indignities the hotel suffers. In fact its descent into dilapidation is accelerating to an almost unfeasible rate. The palm court is not only entirely overgrown; some of its contents appear to have sent out roots that are making the floors bulge elsewhere. The cats are moving into new territories. The Major moves bedroom often as, for instance, a washbasin in his current room slowly capsizes on its lead piping and empties its contents on to his slippers. You might put your foot through a floorboard on any of the upper floors because of, well, either wet rot or dry rot. A flat roof, bowed under its load of autumn rain – the seasons are turning – splits and soaks a grand piano beneath. And so on.

Edward is becoming more of a rounded character – given that we only ever get the Major’s-eye-view of him – and he’s becoming less predictable. He’s more of a representative of the Brits in Ireland than the Major is: a mood of black pessimism might give way unexpectedly to festival days of hilarity, as when he becomes a kind of master of ceremonies at the height of the residents’ whist mania. (There’s plenty of hilarity in Lloyd George’s upbeat speech in ‘The Prime Minister in Ireland’. No further comment necessary.) But it’s clear that in terms of managing the hotel, Edward’s lost it. When we see him at his most defiant it has nothing to do with the hotel: he comes in with his clothes dishevelled and torn, and proudly shows the Major the clump of hair – ginger, inevitably – that he’s torn from the skull of one of his attackers. Despair, defiance, denial. Have I missed anything out?

The Troubles. The Irish become more openly insolent almost by the day. The old women sometimes go out to the town in a posse to face out any signs of impertinence, but this tends to degenerate into a kind of defiant game. Meanwhile, in the wider world, the burning topic is the Reprisals. A mixture of newspaper cuttings and arguments among the characters, in which the Major is always much more fair-minded than any of the other Brits, allows Farrell to chart the inevitable descent into a hopeless stalemate: policemen are shot and, in reprisals that seem to prefigure those of the Nazis 20 years later, villages are raked with machine-gun fire or individuals are subject to gross maltreatment or even summary execution. (Other clippings describe a parallel series of acts of violence perpetrated by and against the British in other parts of the Empire.) Throughout all these events, of course, all the Major can really think about is Sarah.

25 August
To the twins’ drunken experiences with the Auxiliaries
The Majestic’s accelerated disintegration continues. Autumn is stormy and wet, then winter is horrible: wherever the guests try to hide, and however many layers of clothing they wear, the draughts seek them out. Edward, who had always been smart and punctual, lets himself go and misses the starts of meals… then gives up altogether and begins on weeks and months of preposterous experiments in the ballroom, surrounded by jam-jars to catch the leaks. The Major is so fed up about having to stand in as maître d’ he almost says something.

Part of Edward’s economy drive is to try to get the twins to wear Angela’s clothes. They’re appalled, obviously, but turn it into a game. The game is all Farrell’s, as we find out where this leads later on. He has the girls teasing Padraig, the awkward nephew of the anti-British old doctor, by putting Angela’s clothes on him. He responds enthusiastically, and turns out to have not only the right figure but perfect deportment. The major doesn’t like it, but the old ladies do. It passes the time.

December. As unfeasibly large numbers of guests start to arrive someone needs to think about arrangements for Christmas. It becomes like the whist mania all over again: the Major and the ladies rustle up paper decorations, a sad-looking tree from the grounds, and real baubles from the one guest with money. Edward pays no attention, but a kind of show-must-go-on wartime spirit makes it seem ok. There’s an almost farcical reminder of the sort of war it is when the Major ends up cooking the doctor’s Christmas dinner for him. All through the preparations, and right at the end, the old man is muttering, ‘British blackguard.’

January, February, March: as you were. Then there’s a press cutting about the British determination to bring these pesky Irish to heel once and for all – and it’s followed by a farcical moment in the Majestic. Edward fires (blank) rounds at Murphy, the decrepit old retainer, and plaster brought down by the noise finally seems to make him realise he needs to bring this pesky delapidation to heel once and for all….

…Fast forward to a grand ball. We’re half-way through Part 2 now and the narrative changes gear: a welcoming fire in the great fireplace, a mediaeval-style torch and a chandelier of blazing candles hastily pressed into the bulb-sockets remind us of what we’ve known all along about the Majestic’s eventual fate. 40 pages later it’s still the same night, and what had seemed to be the great success of the hotel’s reinstatement has, bit by bit, fallen apart. There aren’t enough young women, there aren’t enough people dancing, there’s behaviour that would have been considered unthinkable in the hotel’s glory days. It’s what Farrell does with the Auxiliaries that makes the link with the Troubles clear. They start to take the piss on the dancefloor, whirling the old ladies around. Then they stand near the opened champagne bottles and get more and more drunk. Then they take Padraig, dressed up by the twins to while away the evening’s longueurs, and almost drown him in the pool. They hurl empty bottles down on to the glass dome of the ballroom. And finally…

…two of them decide that date-raping the daughters of the hotel’s owner is an excellent idea. It could become horrible – Farrell doesn’t shy away from horrible – but, as when Edward and Noonan search for each other, it turns into farce instead. This time we don’t just get two points of view, we get four: Charity’s nightmare of being shipwrecked punctuating (and puncturing) her man’s ruthlessly efficient unwrapping of the crinoline she’s chosen to wear; and Faith’s naïve determination to help her bloke along punctuated by his dire visions of curtains of fat. It culminates in Faith’s man fast asleep and Charity’s man with a fractured skull from the blow she’s given him with whatever was to hand. In her nightmare he was a disgusting, sucking sea creature. Is it a tour de force? It’ll do.

The Major hears a lot of this going on, but doesn’t understand. He’s beyond caring at first, because his longed-for project of getting Sarah upstairs on her own with him has been successful – by which I mean she’s given him a chaste kiss and spelt it out for him that he represents absolutely everything she doesn’t care for in men, that he has no chance and never will. He’s left in the linen room feeling bereaved, until the screaming starts….

28 August
To the end
I was convinced that all those references to fire and flames at the beginning of the ball were a big clue: the hotel was going to be burnt down by the end of it. Wrong. It survives, more or less, and things carry on as they always have done, only worse. I’ll get back to that.

Edward has disappeared even before the first guests start to leave the ball early. Where can he be? After the Major finally gets some sleep – in a farcical parody of a love-nest with the twins, who have climbed shiveringly into bed with him after he’s told them off – he is taken to Edward’s study, wrecked in a fight. Sarah’s there, naked under a blanket, and through an open door, there’s the bed with its tangled sheets. But we aren’t given the Major’s mortification straight: it’s mixed with the farcical story of the fight between Edward and Sarah’s aggrieved father. By the end of it they were both full of polite, gentlemanly apologies. Sarah, of course, is disgusted, and we don’t see her again after this.

Edward gives up on trying to run the hotel. Instead, he becomes fixated on defending it. (We don’t realise how fixated until the end, when the Major finds all his emplacements and trenches, as though in expectation of an army. Before now, Edward has always complained that this is exactly how the Irish don’t attack.) There are attacks, but they are of the kind you’d expect: his pigs are slaughtered – we get descriptions of the gallons of blood in the converted squash-court – and the statue of Queen Victoria gets its long-awaited bomb. Edward, who has been waiting for this, shoots the bomber. Farrell gives us careful descriptions of the realities of dealing with a corpse – but farce is never far away: the blast has made the queen lean over, with her metal skirts lifted indecorously.

We only get one press cutting in this last part of the novel, and it’s about Lloyd George’s meeting with De Valera. Edward is given a different signal: he has a blazing row with some visiting Oxford undergraduates, and now even in his craziness he can see which way the wind is blowing. He and the Major – who has been practically running things since before the ball – start to wind down the business. The servants have been melting away anyway, and the ladies take over: for a while they eat better, and know when to expect tea. Eventually, they’re off to England, sorted out. The twins have already gone, and now Edward is going too – but the Major, as we should have guessed, is staying on alone. It isn’t Sarah who’s keeping him there – we’ve heard the story of how she’s run off with the worst of the Black-and-Tans, the one who held her arm so tightly at the ball there’s a bruise – but we’ve given up trying to ascribe motives to him by now. He’s there because he’s there.

And there are two or three others with him. Old Murphy has nowhere else to go and wanders the place giggling, and a newly arrived ‘pure Cockney’ Auxiliary turns up to look around. Fine – except the Major loses him, and we realise there are horrors to come. This being a J G Farrell novel, the horrors are presented in the context of farce. The Major gets knocked unconscious, and finds himself being buried up to the neck on the beach. He realises the new Auxiliary is already there, and soon he hears the sounds of him drowning. It’s a good job the Major is buried a bit too high up – but soon he’s re-buried, and the tide’s coming in again. In his delirium he knows he’ll be all right, even has comforting visions of Sarah digging him up. Some hope.

Luckily, the old ladies have had to turn back on their journey to Dublin, and they find him in the nick of time. (Farrell gave up any pretence of realism a long time ago.) And that’s that. Except… Mad Murphy has been pouring something from the shed all over the hotel, the cats, himself – and when he finds some matches, well, you can see the glow for miles. Onlookers see caterwauling demons on fire, Satan himself on fire on the roof. And then they don’t because the whole once majestic edifice crashes to the ground.

How clunky is the symbolism? Usually there’s enough entertainment value to make it forgivable. All through, we’re wondering what this character represents, what this behaviour might signify… and, in the end, all you can do is accept. Or not: sometimes things only work on the symbolic level, like the Major’s unbending resolution to stay in Ireland. Finally, he does go back to England, and he gets over Sarah. Except… years afterwards, he thinks of her ‘once or twice’. And is that her on the street?

Sex. It’s always there somewhere but, because of the way Farrell presents the Major’s sexuality, it’s only glimpsed somewhere at the edges if not entirely out of sight. All his relationships with women – Angela, Sarah, the twins, the old women – are asexual in different ways. Enough said, almost. But he unexpectedly notices the twins’ sexuality – only he could be caught by surprise by such a thing – when they practise dancing and when he catches an unexpected glimpse of thigh. And he notices the physical aspects of women: their fragility in his shell-shocked vision early on, the hugeness of the woman Ripon marries, the ageing of the female residents, the bruise on Sarah’s arm. But, to all intents and purposes, he’s completely separated from women sexually. When he lies naked in his nest his genitals aren’t even mentioned – although Edward’s are as he lies in his bath, and the Major finds the idea of them distasteful. Sex is for other people – Edward and Sarah, Ripon, the twins in their adolescent fantasies, the grotesque old resident ogling the twins or anybody else in skirts. Somehow, it’s always sordid. We aren’t surprised when, after finally getting over his crush on Sarah, it seems to be the end of any idea of sex. For him, it’s never even started.


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