Hello, friends. A few weeks ago, my friend Mary Alice Downie recommended to me a novel I’d never heard of, by a novelist whose name was completely new to me. It was The Singapore Grip, by J. G. Farrell.
Cover of the first edition, published 1978 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
My total ignorance of Farrell is all the more surprising because I hold graduate degrees in Dead White Men. Farrell, an Anglo-Irish novelist who won the Booker Prize in 1973 and drowned, aged 44, in 1979, is exactly the kind of person I ought to have studied – or at least heard mentioned in passing.
My sense of astonishment only intensified when I got my hands on a copy and read the astounding, authoritative first pages. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand how Farrell creates such a wholly absorbing atmosphere, and how his narrative voice works to such extraordinary effect. The voice in these first pages is the novelistic equivalent of the Ancient Mariner: Farrell seems to lean out of the pages, thread his finger through your buttonhole, and address you with a “glittering eye”. About the early days of Singapore:
If you were merely a visitor, a sailor, say, in those years before the war… you would have gone to drink and dance at one of the amusement parks, perhaps even at The Great World itself, whose dance-hall, a vast, echoing barn of a place, had for many years entertained lonely sailors like yourself. There, for twenty-five cents, you could dance with the most beautiful taxi-girls in the East, listen to the loudest bands and admire the glorious dragons painted on the walls… There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.
See what I mean? It’s an important reminder that historical novelists seek to evoke all the senses, but Farrell seems to go above and beyond. This kind of bursting abundance happens with his research, too. To give just one example, there’s a minor comic scene in which a character is on the phone, taking notes on how to embalm a corpse. It’s a throwaway moment, a one-sided dialogue that occurs simultaneously with another very different conversation, but Farrell absolutely goes for it:
“D’you mind if we just go over the sites of injection once more,” cried Dr Brownley in a voice of despair. “No, operator, this is an important matter, a matter of life and death. I’m a doctor, will you kindly get off the line please. Now, fluid equal to fifteen per cent of body weight into the arterial system? 450 cc to a pound, yes, I’ve got that. Two per cent body weight to be injected into each femoral artery towards the toes. One per cent into each brachial artery towards the fingers, yes. One common carotid artery towards head with two per cent. Inject same carotid towards heart with seven per cent. What happens, though, if the blood in the artery has clotted, as I’m afraid it might have by now, and you can’t force the fluid in? Wait a moment, I’m trying to note it down, yes… the extremity should be wrapped in cotton wool soaked in the fluid and then bandaged… and you keep on soaking the cotton at intervals. Good. Another thing I want to know is whether one has to inject fluid into the thoracic and abdominal cavities?”
Maybe what I loved the most was this kind of ferocious excess, which extends to Farrell’s social panorama of Singapore. He’s interested not only in the rich and powerful (which, in 1941, means English plutocrats and colonial administrators), but the displaced (a French diplomat who escapes from Vietnam with, literally, only the clothes on his back; a half-Russian, half-Chinese woman blacklisted because of her Communist connections) and the poor ( thousands of Chinese families who lived on boats along the river; the servant class). At one point, Farrell even takes you into the mind of a terrified Japanese private going into battle.
Cover of the 2005 edition from the New York Review Books Classics.
There’s a very casual brutality at work in the novel, which seems entirely appropriate given its subject. The closest thing it has to a protagonist is the not-so-young but idealistic Matthew Webb, who stumbles into Singapore in late 1941 and tries to find his moral bearings. Matthew is both sympathetic but infuriating, full of noble impulses and thoughtless cruelties. Despite his high-minded ideals, he doesn’t actually do much; despite his wealth, he has almost no impact. He’s a perfect Everyman for Farrell’s modern morality play.
As is obvious by now, I love and admire this novel. I also need to re-read it, in hopes of better understanding how it works. I’ll leave you today with Farrell’s conclusion. After 553 pages of suffering, injustice, black comedy, blighted hopes, hypocrisy, racism, and impotent rage, he leaves you thus:
In any case, there is really nothing more to be said. And so, if you have been reading in a deck-chair on the lawn, it is time to go inside and make the tea. And if you have been reading in bed, why, it is time to put out the light now and go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, as they say, as they say.
So… what are you reading right now, friends?