on 3 August 2010
This book was a revelation to me. The reader swiftly becomes immersed in the amazing world of 1919-21 Ireland. Action is centred on the fictive run-down Majestic Hotel in County Wexford. The establishment is emblematic of the last days of English rule. Owned and managed by an eccentric Unionist, the hotel caters for guests that are largely of that political hue, though there are a few notable exceptions in the character list. The Majestic is an enclave of the ascendancy in an Ireland on the verge of civil war. Life here is viewed through the prism of a young, liberally-minded major just returned from the Great War and planning to marry the proprietor's daughter. His plans are however thwarted by fate. One of many scenes that intrigued me was when a group of Oxford undergraduates stay at the hotel. The proprietor Edward Spencer expects them to support his bigoted, racist views of the native Irish. The visitors, despite their privileged backgrounds, side with indigenous population's wish to break free of the colonial power. Spencer is livid.
The book was awarded the 1970 Man Booker prize in May 2010 because there was no award made that year - something to do with a mix-up in qualification dates. Anyway, unlike most Booker awards, the decision of the judges - in this case, the reading public - was overwhelming. I can see why. It's very funny, quirky, sad, wise and yet analogous of the troubled Ireland of the Nineteen-Seventies, when the book was written. I read the last 250 pages in one sitting. Sadly the author, JG Farrell drowned in a fishing accident in Cork in 1979. He had a reputation for being something of a curmudgeon on colonialism and capitalism. But for all that, the text never preaches and is concerned above all with the intrinsic humanity of the characters. 'Troubles' is part of Farrell's 'Empire Trilogy", the rest of which I cannot wait to savour.
on 13 June 2000
'Troubles' is JG Farrell's masterpiece. Set in the months leading up to the Irish Civil War, in a remote hotel by the sea, it concerns the fortunes of a First World War veteran, the Major, on a visit to Ireland, gradually drawn into the declining fortunes of the Anglo-Irish. The Major's inner conflicts mirror the increasingly precarious political situation which steadily impinges on the lives of the characters, with a vivid conclusion. Farrell's control of the narrative is first-class, moving from the bizarre to the sinister in a matter of sentences, and the book is full of memorable images that linger on the retina long after you've finished reading: the sheep's head in the hotel bedroom, the burning hotel, the overgrown palm court. It's haunting, melancholic, very funny, political, intimate, and beautifully written. There is no-one quite like Farrell writing in Britain today; such a pity his untimely death cut him off in his prime. Treat yourselves.
on 1 May 2008
Just back from the trenches of World War I, the retired Major Brendan Archer travels out to the Irish village of Kilnalough to meet his fiancée Angela Spencer, whose family runs the (once renowned) Majestic hotel. But once there she proves first elusive and then sick, and before long she dies. But although afterwards there's nothing much keeping him there, the Major finds himself strangely unable to leave the Majestic hotel. But this is Ireland in 1919, and remote as Kilnalough may be, there are increasing stories in the papers of troubles all over Ireland.
As in 'The Siege of Krishnapur' (another masterpiece, set during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and winner of the Booker Prize), Farrell depicts in this novel the slow decline of the British empire, and he does so in a truly inimitable way. In itself there's nothing much funny about the bloody struggle for Irish independence, but nevertheless Farrell's novel abounds with hilarious scenes and is peopled with characters that are both immensely tragic and unbelievably funny.
I enjoyed the whole story no end, and cannot say how sad it is that Farrell already died at the age of 44 because I'm sure he would have gone on to produce many other deeply beautiful, tragic and funny novels.
on 6 September 2010
Growing up in Ireland in the 1970's, the only history we ever seemed to cover in school was the War of Independence. I became thoroughly sick of its heroes and villains; Black and Tans, the Easter Rising, Padraig Pearse, Michael Collins - ever since I have found the whole business boring and tedious. I have a deep-seated grudge against Eamon De Valera whom I blame for making the Irish language compulsory in our schools, but apart from that I have had no interest for years in the events or people involved in the founding of the Irish Free State.
This wierd and wonderful book has provoked my curiosity. Through the eyes of a gentle, politically-neutral Englishman recovering from his experiences in the Great War, we see the impact of the upheavals of 1919-1921 on ordinary Irish people, rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic. It is not a preachy novel about political rights and wrongs; it is a story of people, their bravery, their foolishness and their suffering. It is interspersed with newspaper articles from further afield - uprisings in India and the Bolsheviks in Russia - which help to establish the global context.
But it is also a very funny, strange and surreal novel. If you don't like Monty Python or Alice in Wonderland you will probably be left cold by the goings-on at the Majestic Hotel. Like Alice, the Major tries to find his way as the only sane person in a strange environment populated by all kind of wierdos and eccentrics, clinging to a bygone age. The hotel itself which is steadily becoming more and more uninhabitable; the 'Palm Court' has been taken over by vegetation, and the upper stories are haunted by hordes of cats. It is a world gone mad, where the veneer of normality is peeling away, and the inhabitants feel like the last survivors clinging to a sinking ship - the state of the country is mirrored in the decay and fear of imminent collapse of the hotel.
However this is not by any means a gloomy book. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and at times really sweet and touching; an easy and enjoyable read. There are some violent scenes, but they shock not because they are so grim and gory, but because they are unexpected and contrast oddly with the whimsy. This book won't appeal to everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and found that it gave me a real sense of how the War of Independence affected ordinary people and a curiosity to read further on the the subject.
on 1 November 2010
You'll either find Troubles achingly funny, or you'll be bored to irritation by its melancholy pace. Major Brendan Archer is still traumatised by his experiences in the trenches when he arrives in Ireland to claim the young woman he acquired as his fiancée in a fit of characteristic vagueness when he was on leave. By now it is 1919 and the Irish countryside is overrun by Sinn Feiners and Black and Tans. Angela's father Edward Spencer, loyalist to the teeth, is the owner of the Majestic Hotel that serves as a metaphor for the decrepit British Empire. The Majestic is a tour de force, inhabited by old ladies smelling of laavender and mothballs, overrun by feral cats and brought to the point of collapse by every kind of rot and by the overgrown vegetation in the Palm Court. The Major is soon released from his engagement - but months pass and a terrible inertia keeps him living (in hysterically funny discomfort) at the Majestic.
As others have pointed out, this is a slow burn. But eventually I realised the skill of Farrell's construction. There's no chapters, the only breaks are intermittent news reports from elsewhere in the crumbling Empire - and like Major Archer, all you can do is read on, carried forward by inertia, unable to extricate yourself from the Majestic until the end. Very clever.
on 8 February 2002
Troubles is the second part of what is a loosely-linked trilogy about the decline of the British Empire. Running through them all to provide some continuity is Major Brendan Archer, a rather weak but quite lovable man who arrives in Ireland in 1921 having retired from the Army in which he served in WW1. He is engaged to a woman he barely knows, Angela, who soon dies. However, rather like the British in Ireland, despite the disappearance of the original reason for his presence, he does not leave. Rather he lingers at Angela's father's Majestic Hotel. The country is being swept by the Home Rule movement, and even the rural area which is the backdrop for Troubles is not immune; Republican freedom fighters are seen on the grounds and the aristocratic residents are in mortal fear at times. The characters are very strongly portrayed in Troubles and the splendid descriptive narrative - particularly of the hotel and its grounds - provide a tangible sense of decay one can almost smell. Of course, since the Hotel is a grand metaphor for the British Empire itself, this is wonderfully appropriate. When Archer arrives, the place is already crumbling and the exotic plants in the conservatory are overgrown and jungular, threatening to block out all the light - perhaps representing the Imperial decline in Asia - by the time he leaves, it is no more. There is a wonderful, glittering hiatus when there seems, for a time, a chance to salvage what is left and turn the clock back, and the reader is swept up in this hopeful optimism, only to have those hopes dashed along with the characters' own - a perfect representation of the interwar years. Troubles can be read on a number of different levels. Even if you are not interested in history, this is still a good read; if you're not interested in the trilogy, it is a freestanding novel in its own right and can simply be read alone. However, if you are familiar with British imperial history, you will find this an erudite and moving story of metaphor. It is a worthy text and I'd highly recommend the other parts of the trilogy, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip.
Sinn Fein only means `Ourselves', but the slight over-translation `Ourselves Alone' is really better, perhaps even in characterising the movement in real life, but certainly as it comes across in this absorbing story. This is a political novel basically. The characterisation is good, certainly, and you would expect that from the author of The Siege of Krishnapur. You would also expect, if you have read that fine novel, to find a tale of The Troubles in Ireland written by Farrell to have political awareness underlying every episode of the plot and political suggestiveness in every interaction of the characters. However I don't mean to imply political preaching. If one thought more than any other came across to me it was that you will not be able to `reason' or otherwise lecture your political opponents into submission. One of the characters says `In Ireland you must choose your tribe.' One tribe can get on to the other's wavelength if it chooses to, (which of course is an infrequent event), witness in recent times the sudden rapprochement between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein in Ulster. The efforts of well-meaning compromisers who could see both sides achieved nothing and would never have achieved anything.
The setting is 1919-21, and the two opposed factions, the Unionists and Sinn Fein, are far from choosing rapprochement, while the main actor in the narrative can see both sides, with predictable lack of results. His name is Major Brendan Archer, and he is called Brendan by three or four of the characters but `the Major' from start to finish by Farrell as narrator. Does that give you an idea of his relative focus on politics vis-a-vis personality? The Major is half-hearted Anglo-Irish, finding himself locked into the crumbling little empire of a typical British Empire blimp for as strange a reason as you could imagine. There is a superbly depicted cast, again as in the Siege of Krishnapur, and they all feed the basic narrative, which is more than just the decline and fall of the British Empire. It is about the long-term consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, and I learned for the first time that Eamon de Valera as well as John Maynard Keynes had prophesied long-term disaster. His prophecy was that this attempt to wrap up the business of one war was going to lead to 20 new wars. If, like me, you view the second Wold War as the last act of the first, then he rather understated the issue. Before WWII was even formally over we had the anti-colonial movement in full swing, the establishment of Israel and of course the Cold War. How many wars do you make that? Answers on a postcard please, not forgetting the occupation of Abyssinia and other events that did not even wait for WWII.
In case I have been over-egging the political content, you ought to find a particularly vivid harlequinade of inter-wars Brits, but I defy you not to find something in your hearts for the troupe of old ladies after their doughty contribution near the end. Interpersonal relationships are handled with tongue-in-cheek originality, my own favourite episode being that of the two Auxiliaries and the twin girls after the Ball, and I was near tears with the book's last words, the Major's envoi. I also don't seem to have said so far that the native sons and daughters of Ireland, their forebears resident there long before the Norman conquest from England in 1169, are painted with what I would think real perceptiveness - for a cameo part try the cook just as an example. Farrell is an Irish name, and he met his own end off the coast of Ireland at a tragically early age. Ireland is also a coherent geographical unity, and I take no definite view as to whether it has to be a political unity or not, but I can only note the centuries-deep roots of this political cause, cherished by a peasant population with long folk-memories and a talent for fanciful enhancement of them. You catch the atmosphere here.
It is all beautifully written, naturally. The action may not seem to move fast, but the frequent and bloody horrors of The Troubles happened against a backdrop of the rural and rain-soaked Irish landscape. One thing Irish idiom does not want for is vividness, either. One tribe is of course Catholic, and where else would you find the horrific fate of a large herd of cats burning to destruction in the fire of a Protestant owner's abode likened to fiery demons pouring from the mouth of a Protestant? `Twas like the work of the devil himself, indeed it was.
`Alone' is an important word in this book. The text uses it often, the sense of the action implies it even more. The putrescent structures of British occupancy were thought by their devotees to provide solidarity. Sinn Fein knew better, and then as now their achievements, whatever you think of them, were ruthlessly planned and worked for by Ourselves Alone.
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole."
"A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford". Derek Mahon.
Irish poet Derek Mahon dedicated the haunting poem quoted above to J.G. Farrell, author of "Troubles". It is a marvelous poem that pays tribute to an absolutely marvelous book; one of the finest books I have read in recent memory.
Farrell, born in Liverpool in 1935 is best-remembered for three books. "Troubles", "The Siege of Krishnapur" (which won Farrell the U.K.'s 1973 Booker Prize), and "The Singapore Grip". Shortly after publication of "The Singapore Grip" Farrell moved to Ireland. He died a few months later when, apparently while fishing, he was swept out to sea and drowned, at age 44. Each of these three books, known collectively as the "Empire Trilogy, is set during a time of crisis in what was once the British Empire. "The Siege of Krishnapur" is set in India during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and "The Singapore Grip" is set in Singapore at the beginning of World War II at the time of the Japanese attack and occupation of Singapore.
"Troubles" takes place in the Irish countryside in 1920, at the height of the turbulence that resulted in the creation of the Irish Republic and the eventual partition of Ireland. The protagonist, the English Major Brendan Archer, is a survivor of the Great War. Upon his demobilization Archer decides to travel from his home in London to Ireland in order to finalize his relationship with Angela Spencer, a young lady he met and perhaps became engaged to, while on leave during the war. Angela's father runs what was once a grand hotel, The Majestic, and Archer finds himself immediately swept up in the collapse of what was once a thriving Anglo-Irish community in Ireland. The Majestic is a mess; it is rotting from within in much the same way that English dominion in Ireland is rotting from without. "Troubles" looks both at the isolated, and fairly bizarre world of the inhabitants of the Majestic while the Irish rebellion creeps closer and closer to intruding on their world.
"Troubles" is an admirable and sometimes uncomfortable mixture of drama and comedy. Some have compared the comedic elements of "Troubles" to the best of Evelyn Waugh and the comparison is certainly apt. I'd only add that Farrell's dark humor is tinted with an element of semi-tragic slapstick such that, given its hotel setting, I could not help but be reminded of John Cleese's "Fawlty Towers". Yet, at the same time, there is an ineffable sadness that permeates the story. Major Archer, whose wartime experiences are only hinted at, is portrayed as a well-intentioned but singularly ineffectual protagonist. He sees the physical rot that surrounds him but is powerless to stop it. He falls in love but his pining and puppy dog-like attempts at courting are rebuffed with so much condescension that I could only wonder why he continued to bother.
I echo the two previous reviewers who have warned readers to save John Banville's brief, but powerful, Introduction to "Troubles" until after they have read the book. Banville reveals a critical spoiler that once read is impossible to forget. By the time I was halfway through the book I was sure that my advance knowledge of a critical event at the conclusion would detract from the pleasure I would have had if I hadn't seen it coming. I urge readers to save the Introduction until after they have actually read the book.
J.G. Farrell's "Troubles" is a wonderful book and I can say nothing more but urge anyone interested in `discovering' a wonderful writer to start with this book. I also suggest that once you've read the book you look up Mahon's poem (cited above) that was dedicated to Farrell. In many respects that poem serves as both a great tribute and a wonderfully crafted review of a book and the meaning one can glean from it. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
on 5 December 2011
J. G Farrell's Troubles focuses on Major Brendan Archer, a retiree from the Army in WW1 who has moved from London to Ireland to reconcile with fiancé, Angela Spencer, a woman he met on leave.
After his fiancé dies, the Major decides to stay in the fading formerly grand hotel, The Majestic. The characters he meets there are all dealing with their own fading and fascinatingly, troubled lives and the Major is satisfied to never question these, although you are left wanting him to delve deeper to address your own curiosity.
The novel is set in 1920 and The Irish War of Independence is beginning to explode. This war is never truly acknowledged in its importance by the characters despite the effect it has on them and we do not get to see much of this war other than this effect. This highlights Farrell's illustration that we should not focus on the war but on the effects of the war on individuals in more detail.
Farrell has a brilliant ability to transport you directly into the world he creates, despite it being from such a different time and place to where we are today. We see through Brendan's eyes and are comforted that the absurdity of the situation in Ireland confuses him as much as us. Farrell's use of first person and his portrayal of Brendan's reactions mean we do not feel isolated from the story and when Brendan decides to accept the situation he is in, despite its absurdity, in the hope that all will be revealed in due time, we are encouraged to do the same. By doing this we allow ourselves to be carried away by the beauty and attention to detail of this book.
I, however, did find this book to feel slightly claustrophobic and uncomfortable at times. The story never moves outside the hotel, the family and the fictional Kilnalough, despite the current war, and the Major is left to wander around this small town where neither he nor us completely understand the people, leaving very few allies that the Major can rely on for a sense of normality.
This book did feel unique, however, because of its building of metaphors. The dilapidation of the Majestic becomes a metaphor for the aging and unusual residents and the isolation of the town and the individuals highlights the undergoing isolation of the Catholic and Protestant religions in Ireland. The most substantial metaphor was Farrell's portrayal of the troubles happening in the Majestic hotel as a miniature version of the breakdown of the Irish war of Independence.
This book has won so many prizes because it is very good. I, however, found it very difficult to read and appreciate because this book revolves around, and relies on, you having a solid knowledge of the history of Britain, Ireland and the Irish war of Independence. History is not something I have ever cared much for or learned about. Without this knowledge I don't think this novel can be truly appreciated in all of its glory.
Originally published in 1970 and newly reprinted, Troubles, the story of Ireland's fight for independence, from the close of World War I through 1922, illuminates the attitudes which led the Irish to fight for their freedom. Farrell also, however, focuses on the personal costs to the residential Anglo-Irish aristocracy as they find themselves being driven out of their "homes."
Edward Spencer, a conservative Protestant loyalist, runs a decaying 300-room hotel on the coast of County Wexford. Regarding himself as a benevolent landowner, he nevertheless demands total submission of his tenants and the signing of a loyalty oath to the King. His ironically named Majestic Hotel, lacking maintenance during the war and its aftermath, is now too costly to repair. When British Major Brendan Archer, newly released from hospital, arrives at the Majestic to reintroduce himself to his fiancée Angela, daughter of the proprietor, the reader quickly sees that the Majestic is a symbol of a faded aristocracy which has outlived its usefulness. The windows are broken, the roof is leaking, and decorative gewgaws and balconies are hanging loosely and threatening to crash. Walls, floors, and even ceilings, are swelling and cracking from vegetation run wild, and the hotel's ironically named Imperial Bar is "boiling with cats," some of which live inside upholstered chairs and all of which subsist on a diet of rats and mice. Irish rebels live just outside the hotel's perimeter.
With wry humor and a formidable talent for description, Farrell conjures up nightmarish images of life in the hotel, selecting small, vivid details to make the larger thematic picture more real. Homely details enlarge his canvas and bring his symbolism home to the reader as the rebellion by the Irish poor continues to grow and affect life within the microcosm of the Majestic. The reader's feeling of claustrophobia and the need to escape builds, and one is not surprised when violence strikes.
By injecting small news stories throughout the narrative, Farrell informs the reader about the progress of the rebellion. He also sets up global parallels, widening his scope by reporting problems in India, South Africa, and other parts of the Empire, along with the Chicago Riots and the Bolshevist attacks in Kiev. Humor and sometimes satire leaven even the most emotional moments, and Farrell paints his characters with a broad brush which makes one constantly aware of their absurdity. Clearly delineating the emotional issues behind the drive for Irish independence, Farrell makes the reader see both sides with empathy. When Edward and the Major finally begin to shoot the Majestic's cats in preparation for a large ball, the reader is prepared for a final round of violence at the Majestic and almost welcomes it. Mary Whipple