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Troubles by J. G. Farrell

Troubles (1970)

by J. G. Farrell

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Troubles by J. G. Farrell is part of his Empire Trilogy. Set against the backdrop the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921), this novel focuses on a crumbling, once grand Irish hotel called The Majestic and the people who are part of it. The author uses this run-down hotel to showcase the downfall of the Anglo-Irish as the violent insurgency advances in favor of the Republicans. Although these three novels, Troubles, The Singapore Grip and The Siege of Krishnapur are not connected by storyline, they all share similar themes about the loss of influence and control of the British Empire.

Englishman Major Brendan Archer arrives at the hotel and although he never actually proposed to Angela Spencer, the daughter of Edward, the owner of the hotel, he has spent his war years receiving letters from her which she addressed to her dear fiancee. The Major spends most of the book observing the very dysfunctional Spencer family. This family is of Anglo-Irish descent, they are Protestants and strongly Unionist in their attitude. Apart from infrequent news reports and the occasional remarks about it, these Irish “Troubles” serve more as a backdrop to the actual events taking place within the hotel.

As the Major fumbles along trying to determine if he is indeed engaged to Angela, the hotel continues to fall apart around the various eccentric characters that come and go. This is a long novel that I thought at times could have been shorter but it was also both insightful and humorous. The author’s use of the hotel as an allegory to the crumbling British Empire creates a dark, ironic and exceeding fascinating read. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Sep 14, 2017 |
J.G. Farrell

Farrell (1935-1979) was born in Liverpool, of Irish descent. He died at 44, swept out to sea while fishing from the shore in Ireland. Farrell wrote eight novels (two published posthumously), but he is best known for the Empire Trilogy: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978). The overarching theme of the Trilogy, which is clearly on display in Troubles, is the human and political consequences and costs of British colonial rule.

The time is 1919-1921, a period of escalating anti-British and sectarian violence that slowly engulfs the protagonists. The place is the small town of Kilnalough, Ireland. The setting is the visit by Major Brendan Archer, British, to the increasingly decrepit Majestic Hotel owned by Edward Spencer, stalwart Unionist, and father of Angela whom Brendan met, and kissed, while on leave three years earlier, and with whom he had since maintained a lengthy correspondence while in the trenches and afterwards, as he recovered from shell-shock, and with whom, he might or might not, be betrothed. And so proceeds one of the saddest stories I have read, but one pulsing with wonderful descriptions of people, places, emotions, and real humour all within a historical moment of change fraught with violence and uncertainty. The tone, as John Banville describes it in his preface, is: "...one of vague, helpless desperation, while the wit is dry to the point of snapping."

The writing is a pleasure: "Thereafter the meal became lugubrious and interminable, even to the Major who thought that in hospital he had explored the very depths of boredom....The food was entirely tasteless except for a dish of very salty steamed bacon and cabbage that gave off a vague, wispy odour of humanity." And this description of the first time Brendan and Angela met: "He now only retained a dim recollection of that time, dazed as he was by the incessant, titanic thunder of artillery that cushioned it thickly, before and after. They had been somewhat hysterical--Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving."

While Farrell has nothing good to portray about the British colonial experience, he is no less acerbic about the Irish whom he describes as surrendering to, "the country's vast and narcotic inertia", characterized by the stultifying hand of the church, the rigid sectarian and class divisions of society, the poverty of people on the edge of starvation while their British landlords live warm and well, the lack of education and opportunities, and above all, the enervating tribalism. Early in the novel, when the Major is told that he too will become critical of Catholics, he says, "I hope not to be so bigoted. Surely there's no need to abandon one's reason simply because one is in Ireland." The riposte is, "In Ireland you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it."

The novel has a contemporary feel in reminding us that while techniques change, terrorism itself is not a new phenomenon: "The Major only glanced at the newspaper these days, tired of trying to comprehend a situation which defined comprehension, a war without battles or trenches....Every now and then, however, he would become aware with a feeling of shock that, for all its lack of pattern, the situation was different, and always a little worse." Farrell reminds us that Ireland was not alone in the turmoil of the time. There are frequent insertions of news articles of the day detailing clashes in Italy, Russia, Poland, India, Middle East, South Africa, all struggling with nationalist pressures and revolutions.

The nationalist and sectarian violence swells and laps at the walls of the Majestic Hotel. The reaction of the British, however dressed in high-sounding phrases, is extremely violent, thus feeding the spiral of hate and more violence that seems to offer no solution. If one stays in Ireland, there is neither escape nor neutral ground.

There is a second, major protagonist in the novel: the Majestic Hotel itself, a 300-room monster on the seaside, that in its heyday was a preferred holiday destination as the epitome of class and comfort, with numberless public rooms, outside amenities, a huge ballroom, and expansive dining room, all maintained by a small army of staff. Now it is home for a number of elderly ladies who have nowhere else to go, strangers such as the Major who come, by accident, for their own reasons or no reason at all, and occasional visitors who return for memories and are disappointed: "they would taste the bittersweet knowledge that nothing is invulnerable to growth, change and decay, not even one's most fiercely guarded memories."

The hotel is huge and it looms over the novel as well; it is the perfect metaphor for the glory of a rich lifestyle for those in power, but now, like the brittle and waning British colonialism, it is a site of decline and decrepitude; Farrell's descriptions of the irremediable decay of the hotel and its reversion to a state of nature are brilliant.

Thinking it through, there is not a single happy person in this novel. The closest one is perhaps the elderly, irascible town doctor who looks upon everyone and everything with a stoical eye, regularly intoning that all is change, everything must pass. But this does not make for an uninteresting novel; far from it: the characters are true to the vagaries of life that continue even in the midst of turmoil; they are varied and well-drawn as they play out individual hopes and fears, generational struggles, love, lust and relationships in a very unsettled and unsettling time.

It is years since I read The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. I enjoyed both and having now added Troubles, I have no hesitation in recommending the trilogy for fine writing and fine stories in pointed historical fiction with strong political and social edges.
  John | Jun 28, 2017 |
This is a rather odd book. It starts off feeling rather quaint, like something that might have come from Angela Thirkell or D. E. Stevenson. Between there and the bleak end, we wander through an almost love story, characters that are reminiscent of Fawlty Towers in their comedic value, legions of feral cats, discourses on existentialism…with side orders of terrorist attacks, religious persecution, and date rape.

Surprisingly, this hodgepodge works. Set in a massive, dilapidated hotel in Ireland during the time of Partitioning, Farrell has given us an extended metaphor for the crumbling of the British Empire and the reactions of both those affected positively and those affected negatively. Somehow, the bizarre journey from a comedy of manners to a semi-tragedy is apropos. It’s angry and tragic and bleak. I’m reminded of Rory’s line in The Devil’s Own: “Don’t look for a happy ending. It’s not an American story. It’s an Irish one.”

This story won the “Lost Booker” that was awarded retroactively to cover books published in 1970 since that year’s books were ineligible for the normal Man Booker Prize due to a rule change. I’m no judge if this book will survive the test of time as one of the great examples of fiction arising out of the Troubles but it’s certainly an experience to read it. ( )
1 vote TadAD | Dec 31, 2016 |
I've been sitting here racking my brains for the right way to approach what the experience of reading [Troubles] was like. Is it like the Brea Tar Pits? Is it the Hotel California? Is it like every disaster movie you've ever seen but happening in s-lo-w motion? Or those dreams where you revisit some house you knew as a child and find there are doors that open into marvelous and odd rooms you never knew were there.

There is never any question that a catastrophe of epic proportions is going to unfold. Firstly because it is 1919 in Ireland and if you know any Irish history at all you know that was the start of three years of miserable violence between the British and the Irish. Secondly, the story takes place in an immense (300 rooms!) formerly grand but now decaying hotel in Wexford, on the coast, run by an eccentric Englishman, Edward Spencer, who proves to be in a state of total denial about the inevitable. Thirdly, the main character, Brendan Archer, known mostly as 'the Major,' is another Englishman who fought in the war and has come to the hotel to woo the proprietor's daughter, Angela, whom he had met before the war and who has been writing to him ever since as if they were affianced. So the point of view is firmly English. Or is it? Archer arrives, he cannot figure out what is happening with Angela, he finds the hotel at turns maddening and even disgusting, at other times, beguiling. Time seems to move differently here in Ireland and for the Major, still deeply traumatized by the war, you can see that the mystery and the unworldiness of it is somehow captivating and soothing. I understand that Farrell was deeply interested in portraying the collapse of the British Empire (and continues to do so in two more related novels). Handled less well, the hotel would be little more than an allegorical stand-in for the neglect and overconfidence, the refusal to face facts and the apathy that characterizes the British upper classes at this time. From the moment you step into the Hotel Majestic with the Major, you too, begin to fall under its uncanny spell. At about the halfway mark the Major becomes aware that, "he no longer had the will-power to leave . . . all he could do now was allow himself to drift with the tide of events. Some strange insect had taken up residence in the will-power of which he had always been so proud, eating away at it unobserved like a slug in an apple."

The Majestic has so many public rooms--bars, parlours, sitting rooms, libraries, gun rooms, game rooms, card rooms, that finding his way around takes the Major months. Once very chic the hotel is now understaffed and mostly inhabited by a large group of elderly women, many refugees from the Empire, who have nowhere better to go. If the plumbing in a bathroom fails, you simply find another room. In winter, when it is freezing cold, the Major, finding a linen room that is near a source of heat and always hot, makes himself a nest and retires there often, removing his clothing and happily wallowing about! It is such unexpected revelations as these that fuel [Troubles] and make it so . . . unique. Downstairs, in the Palm Room the plants have taken over. Roots bulge through floors and walls. Strange cracking sounds are to be heard. Curtains rot and sofas are explosive with dust. On the top floors feral cats breed in legions. And yet, the place limps on, some of the niceties are still observed and even if the pool is filthy and the tennis court useless, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner are still served formally. No one I've read in recent years except Iris Murdoch has captured the spirit of a building so completely until you realize that it is really the Majestic that the Major has fallen in love with and grieves for as it literally starts to collapse around him. The Empire? Yes and no. It is so much more than that, somehow through this hotel Farrell can show the grandeur and the folly, the charm and the evil of the Empire in its dotage. The Major, too, feels sympathy for everyone, Irish and Anglo alike and his bewilderment and continuing efforts to be a decent person throughout, is very moving. Farrell's metaphors are also exquisite and unexpected and apt. I've never read anything quite like it, such a perfect and relentless blend of humor and pathos. ***** ( )
9 vote sibyx | Jun 28, 2016 |
I made the rather embarrassing error of mistaking J.G. Farrell for E.M. Forster, before I picked up this book. Must have been something to do with the double-initial British-sounding venerable author-like name. Consequently, I had somewhat tepid expectations from the novel Troubles...and was proved delightfully wrong.

The hero of Troubles is one Major Brendan Archer, recently released from duty in WWI. Suffering from a lack of real family, he goes to Ireland in 1919 to reunite with his 'fiancee', a girl he once kissed on a summer afternoon and never met again. The girl Angela, hilariously enough, has been writing to him all through his tour of duty, signing off, "your fiancee..."

This gave me enough indication that the book was going to be a good deal more funny than I gave it credit for. And it does deliver on that account. Angela lives in the Hotel Majestic run by her father Edward in rural Ireland; the hotel itself is run-down and now populated by various old ladies and cats, both contingents of whom neither pay nor leave.

And in essence, that is all the plot there is. Which is to say, the good Mr. Farrell is so dashed accomplished, that he can take this idea- a crumbling, once-glorious institution like the Majestic, and chart its decline along with the stories of those who come to live there, one way or another- and make a jolly good show out of it. The descriptions of the Palm Court and first tea-party scene are alone worth the price of admission.

The poor Major does manage to fall for the wrong girl, though, I will say that. The increasingly tense political situation in Ireland is also masterfully depicted. Not that I would know a whit about that, and indeed I was guilty of skimming over parts which dealt with it, but that is my own failing and doesn't take away from the narrative.

Full review at http://devikamenon.blogspot.com/2013/09/readings-troubles.html ( )
  dmenon90 | Jun 6, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
Set in the Majestic hotel in fictional Kilnalough, County Wexford, Troubles sees Major Brendan Archer travelling to meet Angela, the fiancee he had acquired during an afternoon's leave. The engagement proves shortlived but the major remains in the hotel, hypnotised by its faded charms and ancient inhabitants, as the Irish war of independence is about to begin.

added by peterbrown | editThe Guardian, Alison Flood (May 20, 2010)
Troubles has everything: great story, compelling characters, believable dialogue and big ideas. It's a book good enough to win the Booker in any year. Not just 1970.
added by peterbrown | editThe Guardian, John Crace (Apr 1, 2010)
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In those days the Majestic was still standing in Kilnalough at the very end of a slim peninsula covered with dead pines leaning here and there at odd angles.
“People are insubstantial. They never last. All this fuss, it’s all fuss about nothing. We’re here for a while and then we’re gone. People are insubstantial. They never last at all.”
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140039732, Paperback)

Set against the backdrop of growing tensions in Ireland in 1919, Troubles, written in 1970, is the first novel in J.G. Farrell's "Empire Trilogy". "Troubles" is set on the east coast of Ireland, largely in the Hotel Majestic, a formerly grand building that has seen better days and now generally houses more cats than guests. The listener is taken back to July 1919, when the 'Major' is visiting the Majestic to reunite with his fiancee Angela, the Protestant proprietor Edward Spencer's daughter. The lovers met in Brighton during the War and have since only corresponded long-distance. The welcome he receives is not quite what he expected. He quickly becomes sucked into the political and sociological ethos of the hotel and its inhabitants, and the story builds tantalisingly until its inevitable dramatic conclusion. A touching, often very funny and yet ultimately rather sad story, which will capture the listener's heart and excite their interest with its themes of Irish politics and love, played out in an unlikely and fragile sanctuary. The reader Sean Barrett is an Irish-born actor who has enjoyed success in the theatre, on television and in film.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:44 -0400)

"1919: After surviving the Great War, Major Brendan Archer makes his way to Ireland, hoping to discover whether he is indeed betrothed to Angela Spencer, whose Anglo-Irish family owns the once-aptly-named Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough. But his fiance;e is strangely altered and her family's fortunes have suffered a spectacular decline. The hotel's hundreds of rooms are disintegrating on a grand scale; its few remaining guests thrive on rumors and games of whist; herds of cats have taken over the Imperial Bar and the upper stories; bamboo shoots threaten the foundations; and piglets frolic in the squash court. Meanwhile, the Major is captivated by the beautiful and bitter Sarah Devlin. As housekeeping disasters force him from room to room, outside the order of the British Empire also totters: there is unrest in the East, and in Ireland itself the mounting violence of 'the troubles.' Troubles is a hilarious and heartbreaking work by a modern master of the historical novel"--Publisher description.… (more)

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