J G Farrell: The Making of a Writer
Lavinia Greacen Bloomsbury, 428pp, £25
Though I never met J G Farrell, I feel closer to him than to any other writer of my generation. This may be partly because he writes in such an engaging way but more, I suspect, because we both underwent the formative - or deformative - experience of polio and the iron lung as young adults in the 1950s. Indeed, the image at the end of Farrell's Irish novel, Troubles, of the major buried up to his neck in sand awaiting the incoming tide, has always struck me as far more evocative of the polio experience than anything in his earlier novel The Lung, which deals with it directly.
Jim Farrell was born in 1935 in Liverpool, an appropriate point of entry for someone describing himself as "half Irish and half English". Much of his childhood was spent in Ireland, but he was sent to an English public school. From there he went to Oxford to read law and play rugby, at which he excelled. Polio put paid to both. It left him with considerable upper-body weakness but concentrated his mind on becoming a writer. Polio survivors tend to be "overachievers" according to psychiatric studies, and Farrell fits the mould. "I'm the most ambitious person you'll ever know," he told one girlfriend. He was prepared to sacrifice material comfort and domestic fulfilment to achieve his aim. After a period in France he lived in a series of rented rooms in London, while he pursued a number of love affairs with attractive young women. The most serious of his early relationships ended in tragedy when the girl was appallingly injured in a car crash and Farrell, after keeping watch at her bedside as though her life depended on it, guiltily disengaged himself once she began her slow and partial recovery.
The least unsatisfactory of the affairs that followed seems to have been with a call-girl who made no demands on him. Most other young women were bewildered by his savage mood swings. "The dilemma," according to his biographer, "was that the women who most attracted him, those who were cerebral, sensitive, tinged with self-doubt and many years his junior, became dependent precisely because they lacked the self-sufficiency and independence that he could have lived with, yet fled from."
Farrell himself was a "self-sufficient blend of male and female capability". He could look after himself and enjoyed cooking and entertaining his friends. One girlfriend said: "Jim was an innately confident person who pretended to be a fall guy . . . The baby bird who had fallen out of the nest was, to me, the tough rugby player underneath." He believed that he was "incapable of writing when living in close contact with someone". Yet his first three novels, A Man from Elsewhere, The Lung and A Girl in the Head hardly justify his confidence in his destiny as a novelist. His awareness of how far short of his goal he was contributed to a haughty loneliness that was indistinguishable from arrogance. During his long apprenticeship Farrell, for all his charm, cuts an unattractive figure.
The turning point in his fortunes came with the award of a Harkness fellowship, which took him to America for two years and enabled him to find the subject that would absorb him as a writer for the rest of his life, the Empire. "It seemed to me," he once said, "that the really interesting thing that's happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British Empire." He also remarked that "being half Irish and half English I'm able to look at the same thing from both sides - from that of the colonist and the colonised".
With the publication in 1970 of Troubles, the first of what became known as the "Empire trilogy", Farrell achieved recognition. The sequel, The Siege of Krishnapur, won the Booker prize in 1973. The previous year's winner, John Berger, had created a furore by attacking Booker for exploiting its workers in the West Indies and had given half the prize money to the Black Panthers. Farrell was expected to be more compliant but he, too, bit the hand that fed him, though he stopped short of giving away the money.
The third book in the Empire trilogy, The Singapore Grip, was Farrell's personal attempt on the novelistic summit, War and Peace, as Timothy Mo recognised in these pages. A good attempt, too, though in the end perhaps the history overwhelms the fictional invention. Farrell then left his rented accommodation in London to live in the south-west of Ireland where he seems to have achieved a measure of calm, discovering among other things the pleasures of fishing. That was his undoing. Caught in a storm on a rock at the sea's edge he lost his footing and drowned. He was just 43.
Lavinia Greacen has written a long book on a short(ish) life. Researched exhaustively, it is clearly a labour of love, but it would have benefited from more rigorous editing.