a random collection of desperate acts

Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Troubles is perhaps the bleakest comic novel I’ve read. It opens with the narrator, unidentified, talking about the Majestic hotel which once stood on a peninsula in rural Ireland. Today, whenever that is, it’s a burnt out ruin littered with unusual numbers of small animal bones and great quantities of cast-iron bathtubs, bed-frames and lavatory bowls all showing how grand the hotel must once have been.

The unknown narrator comments that the Majestic had been in decline for some time before its end. A man named Edward Spencer had taken ownership of the hotel and managed it with the aid of a threadbare staff who catered to the limited needs of his guests and family. Those guests were a dwindling number of elderly ladies who had visited for years. Many of them had no other home. The Majestic then was a decaying hulk with only a few rooms of weak life left within it.

Troubles is the story of how a man known as the Major came to the Majestic, and what happened to him there. It’s also the story of how the British Empire lost Ireland and how ultimately it lost its empire.

This is a longer quote than I’d usually wish to include, but it gives an excellent feel for the style of language used and the sly humour that permeates the novel:

In the summer of 1919, not long before the great Victory Parade marched up Whitehall, the Major left hospital and went to Ireland to claim his bride, Angela Spencer. At least he fancied that the claiming of her as a bride might come into it. But nothing definite had been settled.

Home on leave in 1916 the Major had met Angela in Brighton where she had been staying with relations. He now only retained a dim recollection of that time, dazed as he was by the incessant, titanic thunder of artillery that cushioned it thickly, before and after. They had been somewhat hysterical – Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving. He remembered declaring that he would come back to her, but not very much else. Indeed, the only other thing he recalled quite distinctly was saying goodbye to her at an afternoon thé dansant in a Brighton Hotel. They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere. The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings.

Although he was sure he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged: a certainty fostered by the fact that from the very beginning she had signed her letters ‘Your loving fiancée, Angela’. This had surprised him at first. But, with the odour of death drifting from the dug-out in which he scratched out his replies by the light of a candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.

That quote comes from very early on and it created certain expectations for me. I had a sense of where the book was going. Yes, I wondered who the mysterious narrator was and what part they’d have to play, but I expected a certain kind of story. A story about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. Anyone reading this probably already knows the broad outline of that story as its usually told. I just thought that here it would be well written.

Troubles is well written. It’s not though simply a novel about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. That does happen, but this is no tale of Irish whimsy.

The Major is taken to the Majestic by Angela’s brother, and then left in the hotel’s echoing lobby. Nobody greets him. Nobody takes his bag. Eventually he finds his way to the Palm Court where Angela, her father and some friends of the family are taking tea.

The Palm Court proved to be a vast, shadowy cavern in which dusty white chairs stood in silent, empty groups, just visible here and there amid the gloomy foliage. For the palms had completely run riot, shooting out of their wooden tubs (some of which had cracked open to trickle little cones of black soil on to the tiled floor) towards the distant murky skylight, hammering and interweaving themselves against the greenish glass that sullenly glowed overhead. Here and there between the tables beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines. In places there was a hollow ring to the tiles – there must be some underground irrigation system, the Major reasoned, to provide water for all this vegetation. But now, here he was.

When I talked about my expectations for the novel what I was really talking about was my expectations for its plot, and by plot I mean a sequence of events with narrative coherence and logic. A story with a beginning, middle and end.

Troubles has a beginning (the arrival of the major) and it has an end (the opening page tells the reader that the Majestic burnt down). A lot happens between those two points in time so it has a middle. Does it have a plot though? Is there narrative coherence and logic? Or is it rather a sequence of meaningless events conveniently bracketed by moments that have no ultimately greater significance than any others?

That’s one sense in which this is not a straightforward novel (though it’s not a difficult one either), and one I’ll return to. The other is that of course all this acts as metaphor. For the Majestic read British rule in Ireland, or even the British Empire itself. For Edward, his family, friends and guests read the English in Ireland, ruling over a local populace they neither understand nor respect.

As the book progresses the lines between masters and servants become blurred. The local villagers grow hostile. The Majestic sales on – a bubble of decaying order ruled by assumptions of status that the world increasingly no longer recognises.

I’ll put my cards on the table. Troubles is brilliant. In 2010 it won the “Lost Booker” prize (a retrospective prize for the year 1970 designed to cover books which lost eligibility due to a change in the prize’s rules around that time). I haven’t read every book that was eligible for the Lost Booker, but given the extraordinary quality of Troubles I’m not at all surprised that it won.

The Major gets drawn deeper and deeper into the life of the Majestic but seeing its decline does not mean he can stop it. The hotel’s structure crumbles while it becomes overrun with feral creatures: tribes of cats; soldiers serving in the black-and-tans; a pair of pretty and wilful twins who couldn’t care less for propriety as long as there are dances and new dresses to be had (Resolute Reader in his review sees them as a harbinger of the 1920s and I think he’s absolutely right).

The old order, both in the Majestic and in Ireland, is being swept away. It’s disappearing not gently, but in violence and brutality. The young are indifferent to its passing and the old barely notice it. In between are those like the Major who are old enough to be part of how things were but young enough that they still have to live in the world as it now is.

As well as all this Farrell has a marvellous turn of phrase. The Major attends family dinners where “… silence collected between the tables in layers like drifts of a snow.” Later the Major sadly observes a “… bath of peeling gilt and black marble in which, no doubt, many a bride of the last century had washed away her illusions of love.”

I wrote recently about how the comic novel fails to get the literary respect it deserves (I was inspired by a post to that effect at Tomcat in the Red Room’s blog). Troubles is the best example I could imagine of how a comic novel can also be a piece of genuinely exciting literature. It’s superbly written and operates on a number of levels but at the same time it’s extremely funny.

Farrell never loses sight of the human among the unravelling of Empire. He describes how the old ladies gain new energy putting up Christmas decorations and mounting little expeditions into the nearby village, fleeting moments of purpose. He brings out the Major’s bitterness brought back from the Great War and tamped down just out of sight. There is warmth here in the writing so that even in the face of the despair and tragedy that pervades the novel it’s possible to laugh while seeing quite plainly that really there’s nothing to laugh about.

I said I’d return to the question of whether Troubles has a plot, or just things that happen. It’s not actually the easiest question to answer. Ultimately though Troubles is subversive in part because it uses traditional narrative techniques but undermines them from within. The novel is a form of history. Like history it has a narrative, it has major characters and minor ones, it has a direction.

In truth though all that is a lie. History has only the narrative we give it. Historical periods start and end where we choose them to do so. Which individuals stand out is dependent not just on who did what but on what records remain and on the agendas of the historians researching them. The only direction history truly has is forward and that is mere fact – it isn’t a direction with purpose. History is written with narrative coherence and logic, but that’s just because that’s the only way we can understand it.

Troubles then as a historical novel reflects how history is created. Things happen, and from them a beginning is chosen and an ending. Certain characters are emphasised, certain parts of what occurs are given prominence while others remain in the backdrop. In the end though it’s all what Edward in an appeal to faith desperately wants it not to be. A random collection of desperate acts.

The Resolute Reader review I referred to is here. John Self reviewed Troubles here and wasn’t nearly as taken by it. Obviously I disagree with his view but a John Self review is never to be sniffed at. Sam Jordison of the Guardian also wrote about it here.

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16 Comments

Filed under Booker, Comic Fiction, English Literature, Farrell, J.G.

16 responses to “a random collection of desperate acts

  1. I agree that this is a brilliant novel. I’d also say that it has a plot. I made the mistake of watching the DVD first, and I didn’t quite grasp how I was supposed to take the story. Halfway through the DVD, I picked up the book, and then I “got” it. Brilliant. Brilliantly funny. After finishing the novel, I bought several others by this author.

    I also recommend MJ Farrell’s (Molly Keane–a different writer) Time After Time

  2. Excellent! Glad you like the book.

  3. Guy,

    I think one can certainly argue that it has a plot, but I don’t think it’s completely clear cut. Obviously it has one in the sense that stuff happens in a certain order, but it avoids neatness.

    I do think it’s brilliantly funny. I didn’t agree with John at all that it’s overlong. Then again it would be dull if we agreed all the time.

    Sam, it was a delight. Shame I had to write it up weeks after finishing it (I always find the later I write the more I write, but then I don’t have a wordcount limit here which you of course do at the G, possibly I should have but if one can’t blether on one’s own blog where can one?).

    Anyway, I absolutely agreed with your piece on it.

  4. leroyhunter

    A superb book, as I said before no argument from me with your assessment Max. I’m surprised to see that John Self didn’t think much of it, but as you say that’s part of the fun.

    There’s something about how Farrell writes in this (and Siege of Krishnapur) that is so perfectly suited to the stories he’s telling that it appears effortless. I’m sure it was the very opposite of that.

    I’m reminded that I still have The Singapore Grip to read. Must try to get to that.

  5. LaurencePritchard

    I read this ages ago and it’s excellent. Read Siege of Krishnapur recently which is also very fine. Will certainly check out The Singapore Grip.

    The whole ‘comic’ novel thing: I suppose the idea is that if a novel is explicitly marketed as ‘comic’ or ‘hilarious’ then people are going to think it isn’t really a great book, as opposed to “satirical” which is seen to have some worth i.e. attacking pomposity, or systems, or whatever. I would think it goes back to the tragedy=serious, comedy=not.

    I would have thought that had changed: Beckett, Pynchon, Roth are a few who have seem to got away with it, but as for the big awards it’s pretty rare. I suppose “absurd” or “surreal” can, but are not necessarily ways around this. The idea that there is no comedy in Kafka is pretty bizarre. Didn’t Alan Bennett write a play about this?

  6. Excellent review – I’ve been missing your booky writings – you should post more. Much more! :)

    Have you ever read a sequence of plays by Eugene O’Neil called ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’? It’s a re-telling of the Greek Oresteia, and, like this book, it also features a building (in this case, a mansion rather than a hotel) with loaded metaphoric significance – especially in relation to nationhood and the good old internal/external psychological conflict. It’s definitely not a comedy though, no sir!

    Many thanks for referencing my blog, I’m flattered – but I’m afraid I’ve taken Tomcat in the Red Room offline for the time being, following a series of unpleasant events and a weird barrage of abuse – but it’ll be back up when the storm dies down.

    Best,
    Tomcat.

  7. great post max I ve only read siege by him ,this seems up my road due to my familys irish backgroud would be one I think I would get on with had seen it had won lost booker and not paid it much attention at the time will now try to get hold of a copy ,all the best stu

  8. A thoughtful review as always, I like the sound of it.
    Thanks for the long quotes, it’s helpful, I know if I need to get the book in French or not. Seems this one is accessible in English and it goes directly on my book pile.

  9. Max: Now that you have joined Guy in enthusiastic support of this, I guess I will have to give it a try. I have to say that descriptions of it (both from positive and negative points of view) haven’t left me too eager.

  10. Leroy, superb as you say, and it does seem effortless. In a way it shows the level of craft involved that it gives that appearance.

    Laurence, I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the thematic trilogy. I think you’re right about the tragedy and comedy thing, but anyone who thinks comic writing can’t be great writing just needs to be thumped with a copy of PG Wodehouse’s collected works.

    Tom, I could only post more if I worked less, and that’s not happening any time soon. Still, there are times it’s more interrupted than others. It can’t be helped really.

    I’ve not read that O’Neill sequence. I’m actually a huge fan of O’ Neill, though in all honesty all I’ve seen so far is The Iceman Cometh, The Emperor Jones and another set in Brooklyn with an underlying theme of Greek tragedy the title of which irritatingly escapes me.

    Your blog is great. I’m sorry to hear you had online hassle. I hope it’s back soon. It is depressing how some people use the internet just to attempt to bully and attack. I wouldn’t want to live that kind of life. All that pointless anger.

    Stu, this is right up your street from what you say. Check it out. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and I think you’d find it rewarding. On the Irish history front have you read Toibin’s The Heather Blazing? I loved that, but then I love Toibin.

    Emma, it’s very easy to read. There’s a lot going on, but it’s not buried under the surface that much. The language is rich, but not difficult. It’s an unusual example of a highly literary novel which is extremely easy to read.

    Kevin, I do actually think you’d find this interesting. Given your recent disappointing Booker reading I’d suggest this in part as a reminder of how good the Booker could be at times. The Lost Booker was a bit of a publicity stunt, but for all that this is not a book that at all shames that prize.

  11. Great review – captures the sort of excitement I felt when I read The Siege of Krishnapur recently. Has convinced me that I must buy this when visiting Dublin next week. I love the way he can be physically cruel to his characters while being laugh out loud funny. It reminded me a little of Nathaniel West.

  12. Thanks for the link. You’ve read some interesting stuff I see. I’ll have a pootle around.

    I’ve only been to Dublin once. I fear I won’t be back for a while. It seemd a great town. Anywhere though I can get guiness and oysters can’t be all bad.

    The point about comedy and cruelty is well made. There are scenes in this I would blush to describe as being funny, because they’re so horrible, but yet they are. That takes talent.

  13. I think this would make an interesting contrast to Banville’s The Sea, an Irish novel which didn’t feel very Irish to me.

    ‘Bleakly comic’ sounds as if it might be my kind of comedy although I would prefer not to laugh at cruelty if at all possible… However if such a thing were to happen not mentioning it is an option, and one that you were exercising to good effect until Seamus blew your cover!

    Glad you reviewed this. It was recently recommended to me merely on the grounds of being ‘good’ which didn’t quite swing it. Your review does.

  14. It really is good Sarah. There are scenes of comic cruelty, but they somehow don’t lack empathy. You’re never laughing with a bully.

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