Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farrell's Empire Trilogy

Discovering J. G. Farrell has been one of the principal delights of the past year or so's reading, first with Troubles (1970), a brilliant comic novel set in a crumbling, once-grand English resort hotel on Ireland's Wexford coast in 1919, the early years of the Irish War of Independence that ended with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Second is The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), which won the Booker Prize and rightfully so since it is the most well-realized of the three, an expertly-researched historical novel set in a remote British outpost in India during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. I've just finished the final book of the trilogy, The Singapore Grip (1978), which follows the fortunes of a family of wealthy British rubber planters in Singapore during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Malay and finally Singapore ("The Gibraltar of the East") in 1942, as good a date as any to mark the beginning of the collapse of the British Empire.

The Singapore Grip is an excellent novel by any standard and I highly recommend it. Having said that, it is the least of the three, but in a way that illuminates the arc of the author's career through writing the Trilogy (there are several earlier novels, I haven't read them), in terms of both aims and methods. Farrell starts out as a psychological portraitist and a writer of comic satire. Troubles wears its politics lightly and has a good deal of antic fun. Eight years later, The Singapore Grip is the work of the "Marxist" Farrell, with Matthew Webb, heir to a rubber fortune by way of Oxford, delivering long speeches detailing the predatory labor and tax policies of the colonials to the utterly debauched and scheming Blackett children, like a mad pedant in one of the more obscure works of Melville. The book includes a bibliography citing 51 sources. This is all to the good, such as it is; for example the technicalities of warfare are handled with economy and clarity that reflects a fluent understanding, as they also were in The Siege of Krishnapur.

The Singapore Grip is an ambitious novel that includes a lot: the rough, polyglot Singapore night life, source of the title; the ancient enmities of planter families that have been in Singapore for half a century of more; the status of Chinese and Eurasians and the consequences of a Japanese occupation for them; the bumbling of the English officers; intense scenes of firefighting as well as of battling and bombing: all of these things are handled very well.

Krishnapur is the best of the three because it comes in the middle of the progression from the wryly smiling satirist of Troubles to the tough tragedian of Singapor. It has the best elements of the two poles. The concentration on persons, with generous helpings of internal monologues, and the endless dry humor woven through the entire text are still there, but with more dire intent as Farrell grows morally ambitious and political. At the same time the historical detail of Krishnapur, for example the familiarity with period artillery and rifles that plays an important role in the story, is professional-level history. With the success of Krishnapur (I mean its artistic success, not popular or critical success) Farrell had a formula: he would mix a sophisticated revisionist history lesson into a literary form that was entertaining and expressive. And he succeeded. Put up against most historical fiction, Farrell is head and shoulders above the rest (Gore Vidal and Cormac McCarthy are exceptional as well).

It's sad that we have this very pat progression through three novels, because Farrell was washed out to sea in 1979 by a wave while fishing on Bantry Bay in southwestern Ireland, at the age of 44. Imagine if he had been with us for these past thirty years.

Here is my earlier post for Troubles, and here is my earlier post for the Siege of Krishnapur.