“Troubles” by J. G. Farrell – Winner of the Lost Booker

“Troubles” by J. G. Farrell (1970) – 446 pages

“Troubles” is not at all what I expected;  the novel turned out to be a fun romp at a dilapidated English hotel in Ireland in 1920.  I expected another eloquent if over-earnest account of the troubles in Ireland after World War I.  Everyone knows this was a tragic time, so how was Farrell able to frame this story as a comedy?  Let me explain.

The main character, Major Brandon Archer, ‘The Major’, visits a hotel, the Majestic, on the coast of Ireland where he is supposed to meet his fiancé.  The Major has just fought in World War I and spent several months in the hospital recovering from shell shock.  The Majestic which once was a luxury hotel is now in severe decline.  Most of the remaining guests are elderly British women who have nowhere else to go.  Huge areas of the hotel are overrun with cats and rats, and occasionally pieces of plaster fall from the walls and ceiling.   Guests move from abandoned room to abandoned room trying to find a room that is habitable.  The hotel’s aristocratic English owner, Edward Spencer, has pretty much lost interest in the hotel.  He’s upset about Sinn Fein and other Irish groups which are working for Irish independence.   The Major soon realizes that Edward Spencer is a pompous fool, and the fun begins.

“Troubles” was the winner of the Lost Booker this year, getting 38% of the popular vote.  The Lost Booker was an award for 1970 novels, because that was the year that got missed when the annual Booker switched from an award for novels published the previous year to novels published the current year.  Among the novels competing against “Troubles” was “The Vivisector” by Patrick White.  Although “Troubles” is a very humorous book, there is no way that it has the artistic ambition and vision, the narrative sweep, of  “The Vivisector”.  The Lost Booker was a popular vote.  Imagine if  Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” were to compete against John Clease’s “Fawlty Towers” which “Troubles” resembles more than a little.  I suspect in a popular vote “Fawlty Towers” would win every time over Hamlet.  That’s about the same contest we have putting “The Vivisector” up against “Troubles”.

Not that “Troubles” is a bad novel.  For Booker winners, it probably is above average.  It does have many virtues just as “Fawlty Towers” has many virtues, first and foremost being extremely funny.    Probably the novel that “Troubles” most closely resembles is “Cold Comfort Farm” where someone travels to a place where all the people are fools, but to be a fool is normal and not being a fool makes you abnormal.

The Major in “Troubles” is an English army officer yet his attitude toward the British presence in Ireland is decidedly not pro-British.  His attitude is more in line with these words from another character in the novel.

    “There’s a new spirit in Ireland; I can feel it you know and see it everywhere. The British are finished here. The issue hasn’t been in doubt, hasn’t been for the last twenty years…I’ve no sympathy for them, they’ve lived here for generations like cocks in pastry without a thought for the sufferings of people. Now it’s their turn, and I’ll shed no tears for them.”

Certainly no tears are shed for the British in this novel unless they are tears from laughing so hard.   This is the first novel of Farrell’s Empire trilogy which also included “Singapore Grip” and “The Siege at Krishnapur”, both of which I read but have little memory of except both also being excellent. Farrell also won the Booker for “The Siege at Krishnapur” in 1973.  J. G. Farrell drowned in a fishing accident in southwestern Ireland in 1979 at the age of 44.

So “Troubles” is a fine novel just as “Fawlty Towers” is a fine TV show.  At the risk of sounding also like a pompous fool, I think the lost Booker lost an opportunity to award the prize to probably the finest novelist of the twentieth century, Patrick White.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I agree, Tony. I liked Troubles a lot when I read it, but it’s not in the same league.
    Lisa

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, I found “Troubles” to be a very fun read, but I found “The Vivisector” to be a life-changing read, as so many Patrick White novels were for me.

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  2. I like comedies, and I actually have this book ($1 at a sale), so let’s hope I find time to read it. Patrick White is excellent–I loved Voss–but haven’t read The Vivisector.

    The plot for Troubles sounds very slightly like Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, set in a boarding house during World War II.

    I’m glad somebody has read Troubles–it’s been vaguely on my list for the past couple of years. And the Booker thing should make me want to read it, but not necessarily!

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    • Hi,
      Patrick Hamilton, I’ve read his novel Hangover Square and I think he wrote the novel that the movie Gaslight was based on, a great movie. I haven’t read The Slaves of Solitude though.

      BTW, there in the mail today was my prize from your blog, Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg. Thank You so very much!

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  3. I’m glad the book got there!

    I found my copy of Troubles, so it is now perched on the coffee table where books go before they are read.

    Patrick Hamilton is usually very dark, but The Slaves of Solitude is almost Barbara Pymish with an edge.

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