JG Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries

Christopher Tayler writes:

A coincidence: I wrote the first page of ‘It’ on St Patrick’s Day with Irish pipers tuning up down in the street 12 floors beneath. In the parade along 5th Avenue they carried banner portraits of Sean McDermott, Kevin Barry and, no doubt, other martyrs. I didn’t stay long because the wind was bitter, the pavement covered in slush and my bones frozen to the marrow. These parades make the Americans look like imbeciles. But, the first page: I wrote it twice, satisfactory neither time.

This book, J.G. Farrell in His Own Words, a selected letters and diaries with linking commentary, is Lavinia Greacen’s second pass at the story of his life, a story that brings aspects of his work into sharper focus without unduly cleaning up its oddness and irony. James Gordon Farrell – Jim to his friends – turns out to have had more in common with J.G. Ballard than with Paul Scott, George MacDonald Fraser, M.M. Kaye and other writers of 1970s bestsellers with imperial themes. Like the empty swimming-pools and weed-choked concrete landscapes that appear again and again in JGB’s imagined futures, the collapsing buildings and insanely cherished Victorian knick-knacks in JGF’s imagined past draw partly on childhood memories of the Second World War – Farrell spoke of seeing ‘adults in pyjamas’ assembling ‘in our air-raid shelter clutching the most extraordinary objects’ – and partly on a late 20th-century sense of crisis. In Farrell’s case, the crisis has to do with Vietnam, decolonisation and British declinism, and also perhaps with feeling out of step with the times. Born in 1935, and shaped by high-minded postwar notions of rebellion, he was unable to approve wholeheartedly of the 1960s but even more suspicious of what he saw as a coming ‘soccer and money cultural ambience’.

(LRB 2 December 2010)