JG Farrell: The Making of a Writer. By Lavinia Greacen (Cork University Press)

by John Boland

Irish Independent, February 23, 2013

Was it an accident or did he jump or was there skullduggery by MI5 or the IRA? Various speculations have been raised over the 1979 death in West Cork of 44-year-old Man Booker winner JG Farrell, and Lavinia Greacen devotes both her prologue and her epilogue to the circumstances surrounding his death.

However, the reader may feel there’s no mystery to be debated. There was fierce weather on the afternoon when Farrell was spotted fishing off the rocks at Bantry Bay, while there’s nothing to suggest that this ambitious novelist with an ever-growing reputation had any reason to kill himself. As for MI5 or IRA involvement, well, everyone loves a conspiracy theory.

Despite his surname, Farrell wasn’t Irish, thought he partly grew up here and revisited the country many times – fatefully at the end of his life when he was seeking the respite of solitude in a rural haven and had bought a ramshackle cottage in which to do so.

But there were Irish roots on both sides of the family. His father’s people were O’Farrells from Sligo who had dropped the ‘O’ when they emigrated to England and settled in Liverpool. Conversely, his mother was a Russell, an English family who had always perceived themselves as Irish and moved to the Irish midlands before she was born.

Their second son, James Gordon Farrell, was born in Liverpool and grew up to be ashamed of his father, a former accountant in India who had gone severely deaf and ended up in lowly office jobs – “My father was a clerk”, he said witheringly to some middle-class Dublin friends when he was a teenager. Still, the Indian background was to prove significant when he came to write his 1973 Booker-winning novel, The Siege of Krishnapur.

After public school and Oxford, where Farrell contracted polio (the subject of his second novel, The Lung, published in 1965), he taught for a while in France and also in Castle Park near Dalkey, a prestigious prep school which, in Greacen’s words, “prepared Protestant boys of good family for public school, usually across the water”. Meanwhile, his own parents had long settled on the outskirts of Dublin and he was frequently back and forth to his Irish home.

And though he was now living in London, Ireland gave him the subject for his 1970 novel, Troubles, which was set in 1919 and which viewed the war for independence from the perspective of a privileged English outsider. It cemented his reputation and in 2010 posthumously won for him the Lost Man Booker Prize for 1970 – a year in which no Booker prize had been awarded. It was also made into a 1988 television film.

The Singapore Grip, which was the third novel in the so-called Empire Trilogy, was published in 1978 and was the last of his books.

Greacen refers to Farrell as Jim throughout this updated 400-page biography, but Farrell wasn’t a man who encouraged easy familiarity – or, indeed, from the evidence presented here, an easy man to like (a Dublin girlfriend he fancied recalled that “he had an intensity which repelled me”), though it’s unclear whether the biographer is fully aware of his unlikeable shortcomings.

Single and self-absorbed, he had relationships with a succession of young women, most of whom he treated badly or at least with indifference. When his friend, the Irish poet Derek Mahon, observed that one of them – Bridget O’Toole, from a Liverpool Irish family – was “tremendously excited to be there with him”, he added of Farrell: “As for his feelings, there was no telling”.

But he was both passionate and single-minded about his work – Mahon noting that he had followed the advice given to writers by Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise. Or, as Greacen puts it: “He had not married, he had avoided journalism, he did everything in moderation and he imposed a daily discipline on his life; the only pleasures allowed were the ephemeral ones of food and wine”.

But he could be immoderate in his reactions and was not averse to biting the hand that fed him – in his Booker acceptance speech for The Siege of Krishnapur in London’s Cafe Royal, he announced that he was “no more enamoured of capitalism than my predecessor” – the reference being to John Berger who, at the previous year’s ceremony had attacked Booker for “sweating blacks” in the West Indies and had donated half the money to the Black Panthers.

By the mid-1970s he had acquired a reputation in London literary circles as an homme fatal (one girlfriend gallantly asserting that “Jim loved women and women loved Jim”), but he was restless and couldn’t commit to any relationship, deciding instead to escape to West Cork, where his life ended abruptly one late afternoon in August 1979.

His books, though, are very fine and will long survive him

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