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Interrupted Lives

Gerald Dawe

J.G.Farrell: The Making of a Writer, by Lavinia Greacen, Cork University Press (second edition), €25, 440 pp, ISBN: 978-1859184899
Stewart Parker: A Life, by Marilynn Richtarik, Oxford University Press, 448 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0199695034

Two writers who had fascinatingly different lives share a tragic intersection in the way in which fate dealt harshly with them. For James Stewart Parker and James Gordon Farrell (James Gordon became simply “Jim”) died in their mid-forties. The novelist, at forty-four, was swept out to sea while fishing from some rocks near the new home he had recently established for himself in 1979 in West Cork. Nine years later in 1988, as Marilynn Richtarik’s meticulous and definitive study reveals, the playwright Stewart Parker succumbed to the cancer which had in 1961 caused the twenty-year-old Parker to have his left leg amputated. Farrell as a student at Oxford in the mid-1950s contracted polio and was as gravely ill as Parker had been and around the same age. In the account of this dignified and copious biography by Lavinia Greacen, this is how Farrell’s Irish-based parents, Jo and Bill, learned about their son’s illness – by telegram: “You son James Farrell is in the Slade Hospital with polio and is going tonight into an Iron Lung”. Jo and Bill “caught the ferry just in time, driving on from Holyhead throughout the night. At the Slade they were told that it would not be known for a fortnight if [James] would live and, masked and gowned, all they could do was stroke his curly hair. The next time they were allowed in, his head was shaved.”

Farrell would spend the subsequent critical weeks in the iron lung. This is how Greacen describes the ordeal:

He was trapped, alone, inside the ultimate compartment, with his mind the solitary lever of control … Between paroxysms of coughing and bright flashes, his old nightmare returned of being swept down through bottomless dark waters.

From this helpless condition Farrell endured months of further treatment before being discharged from the isolation unit into the care of Professor Trueta, “reputed to be the top polio specialist” in England at the time. After physiotherapy, Farrell was released in February 1957 from hospital, “markedly grey-haired and four stone lighter and travelled home in the care of an Irish friend, Peter Brown” to his parents’ bungalow in the Dublin hills.

If their early manhood was marked by such critical tests of physical courage, their writing lives make for powerfully challenging reading. In these days of narcissistic self-regard (often on the flimsiest of actual literary accomplishment) the unmistakable ethical force of Farrell and Parker’s writing shines through their hard-won individual struggles for artistic expression.

In Farrell’s seven novels, particularly in what has become known as the Empire trilogy (Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip) and in Parker’s plays (for stage, radio, television) but most widely recognised in Ireland for his triptych Three Plays for Ireland (Northern Star, Heavenly Bodies and Pentecost), both men produced lasting works of artistic weight and high literary value.

The personal life story as it resurfaces in their writing is always imagined, rendered and revealed with great energy and the buoyant playfulness with language of is matched by the serious structural intelligence that both entertains and challenges the audience. The presence of the author is generally at a far rendered remove. If anything, both writers shared distaste for the palaver of being a writer although as both biographies prove, Farrell and Parker worked exceptionally hard to be their own masters. Financial reward came late in the day for Farrell with the 1973 Booker Award-winning novel The Siege of Krishnapur and the added clout that prestigious award brought to negotiations with book publishers. (His Troubles received by international e-vote the posthumous award in 2010 of the “Lost” Booker.)

For Parker success was a fleeting thing and, as so often with the theatre, the achievement seemed always past tense because of the form’s transience. Yet Parker’s last staged play, Pentecost (1987), was greatly praised and sits alongside such contemporary classics as Brian Friel’s Translations (1980) as his finest play. (Parker’s dexterous literary and rock journalism well repays reading for its wit, enthusiasm and the general tone of being interested in what he is writing about rather than merely showing off how much he knows.)

Pentecost concluded in its Field Day tour and was due to transfer to the UK when, in 1988, Parker “completed the first draft of [a] new screenplay” and “received the exciting news that Oberon Books, a Birmingham-based publisher, would bring out an edition of his ‘history plays’”. He decided upon a thorough revision of Heavenly Bodies as well as writing an important brief introduction to Plays for Ireland. Sadly, by late summer that year (1988) the stomach problems he had been suffering from were diagnosed as inoperable cancer and on November 2nd, less than two weeks after his forty-seventh birthday, he died.

History plays a defining role in Farrell’s and Parker’s art. For Farrell history is the dramatic imagining of political, social and cultural realities in which individuals, classes and castes find a role to perform – inherited as with the manners and codification of British imperial social practice (in Ireland, Singapore, India) but also within the inner worlds of the mind and how their characters go about their customary lives. What politics and culture they (and we) share, how the other is conveyed, and our different ways of being: these complex and differing worlds are made real by Farrell and Parker. Their writing is characterised by wonderfully luminous detail, by inflected voices, tragic-comic misunderstandings and denials, all based upon poetically charged visions of a powerfully visualised and stylised use of the traditions, literature and forms of the English language.

In a telling comment on his unexpected death, Marilynn Richtarik records that “Most people who loved Parker – and they were legion – experienced a … sense of frustration. He had died so suddenly, and so full of life, that his physical absence seemed at first a gaping wound.” The biographer goes on to remark: “Despite the humour pervading his work and the apparent naturalism of his dialogue, a tragic vision lies at the heart of Parker’s enduring achievement.” Perhaps the words of Frank McGuinness, which Richtarik quotes towards the conclusion of her fine study, captures the truth of Parker’s loss: “If the English language has lost an important writer, the Irish people have lost an important man.”

In his foreword to Lavinia Greacen’s captivating biography, Derek Mahon recalls a visit to Farrell’s short-lived Cork retreat where he found:

…o n [Farrell’s] desk and bookshelves … Japanese dictionaries and Buddhist texts which seemed to indicate the way his thoughts were tending during his last year, and even to reveal an important, if barely visible, aspect of his nature: for his early brush with death and subsequent singularity had developed in him a mystical strain, one which expressed itself in impatience with London and withdrawal to the silence of west Cork – there, in an old phrase, to make his soul.


Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems was published by The Gallery Press in 2012. He is currently a visiting Fellow at The Moore Institute, NUI, Galway.