Prize marks achievement of a genius who was lost in the prime of his life

Jonathan Brown

IT was after completing his celebrated Empire Trilogy that JG Farrell moved to a remote farmhouse above Bantry Bay. He admitted he was having trouble applying himself to his craft.

"I've been trying to write but there are so many competing interests -- the prime one at the moment is fishing off the rocks," he told a friend.

That was August 1979 and a deadly Atlantic storm was brewing.

Weeks later, Farrell went down to the sea armed with his rod, slipped and fell on the foaming rocks. He drowned. He was just 44.

Last night, three decades after his death, the writer was named the winner of the "lost" Man Booker Prize for his 1970 tour de force Troubles, which tells the story of another Englishman who comes to grief here -- this time a soldier embroiled in the gathering tempest of the War of Independence.

Farrell's brother Richard accepted the prize at a celebratory party in London last night.

"This is a bittersweet moment to me," he told the audience. "It's sweet for obvious reasons but it's bitter because Jim can't be here to accept the prize himself."

The award was created to correct the anomaly that befell authors of books published in 1970, who missed the opportunity to be considered for the Booker-McConnell prize (as it was then known) when it changed from being given retrospectively to being handed out for the best novel in the year of publication.

Farrell's fourth novel was one of a long-list of 21 overlooked books eventually whittled down to a shortlist of six.

But it was Troubles that caught the eye of the judges, who praised its wit and searing intelligence.

It means Farrell, on the cusp of achieving international literary celebrity at the time of his death, will be brought to a new generation of readers.

Even though it has never been out of print in the 40 years since it was first published, the novel looks likely to enjoy the traditional "Booker bounce" in sales and will lead to further critical re-evaluation of Farrell's standing among the great Irish writers.

Quite how Farrell would have felt about the accolade is debatable. His agent and friend Deborah Rogers insisted it would have meant much to him to have the received the prize for the second time, having won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapu.

But at that award ceremony, Farrell surprised guests with his ambivalent acceptance speech, referring obliquely to "commercial exploitation" and adding: "Every year, the Booker brothers see their prize wash up a monster more horrid than the last."

An intensely private man who never married, James Gordon Farrell was born to an Anglo-Irish family in Liverpool. He studied at Oxford where he was a keen rugby player, but contracted polio. The experience informed his second novel The Lung, written in 1965, but it was the Empire Trilogy which saw his career really take off.