Reading Note:
Jubilee Postponed
8 October 2019

¶ Matthew Webb, Major Archer, François Dupigny, and Walter Blackett are all big, meaty characters, worthiest of the baggiest monster. Jim Ehrendorf and Dr Brownley, although they don’t get anything like as much attention, are if possibly even more memorable: who can forget Ehrendorf, a compleat ingenu, pulling Joan Blackett, anything but, in a rickshaw (so that she can catch a boat and leave him behind), or the charlatan Dr Brownley, at nearly the same time, running through the fall of Singapore to a shop that is selling something madly desirable to the doctor, but not identified to us, for $985.50. What could it be? Probably not “a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use.”

The Singapore Grip came out in 1978, the year I turned thirty; I doubt that I’d have read it then had it been given to me — although I can’t say why. (Anglo-) Irish writers and (contemporary) Asian settings were disqualifying elements for me, because I knew all about them (not) and they had nothing to tell me (possible — I was still broadly deaf). Also, I was in law school; my attention was unevenly divided between fourteenth-century law reports and a classmate by the name of Moriarty. The author, JG Farrell, died in 1979, promptly to become a writer cherished by small, appreciative clusters. I have already forgotten what prompted me to order another title of Farrell’s “Empire” trilogy earlier this summer. 

I did not read the books in order, so it was only in the middle of The Singpore Grip that I saw the progression, from something close to non-violence in Troubles, the first book, to the oddly whimsical offstage violence of The Siege of Krishnapur, to the wholesale collapse of a city of millions. Although The Singapore Grip begins in  1937, it advances quite rapidly to the close of 1941, when a war familiar to all Americans also began in Southeast Asia. After a long evening that requires more than fifty pages of narration, the bombs begin to fall, and they keep falling for 378 more. The catastrophe of British incompetence becomes a feature of the landscape.

Why should you read this gruesome book? Because Farrell’s extraordinary prose redeems mortal pungency with the driest wit. As in The Siege of Krishnapur, attempts to reproduce Edwardian stateliness in the rabid tropics serves as a deadpan baseline of the ridiculous against which such follies as Walter Blackett’s Jubilee parade, celebrating his firm’s fifty years of “Prosperity and Continuity” — doomed to transpire only in his own mind — can be savored as the maddest nonsense. Farrell’s canvases provide him with ample inspiration for the bitter but awfully funny understatement of Evelyn Waugh while dispensing with the need for burlesque. Farrell apparently cribs from some published military memoirs; only the tidiest dose of ventriloquism is needed to make a mockery, sometimes of the authors but always of Whitehall. Churchill is no hero in these pages. 

There are no heroes. There are only men like the Major and Dupigny, who weather the storm with bone-deep resolution. You really can’t help admiring them, a lot. 

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