A coincidence: I wrote the first page of 'It' on St Patrick's Day with Irish pipers tuning up down in the street 12 floors beneath. In the parade along 5th Avenue they carried banner portraits of Sean McDermott, Kevin Barry and, no doubt, other martyrs. I didn't stay long because the wind was bitter, the pavement covered in slush and my bones frozen to the marrow. These parades make the Americans look like imbeciles. But, the first page: I wrote it twice, satisfactory neither time.
J.G. Farrell - a Liverpool-born, Oxford-educated writer of Anglo-Irish descent - was living in New York when he wrote these words in his diary on 18 March 1967. He was 32 and had published three novels, A Man from Elsewhere (1963), The Lung (1965) and A Girl in the Head (1967), to only moderate acclaim. (None of them has been reprinted.) 'It' was going to be a novel dealing with the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, which his Irish Protestant mother had childhood memories of, and which he was reading up on in a public library on 53rd Street, 'scarcely adding to my feeble conception of how the thing should be'. According to his biographer Lavinia Greacen, he was also working on three short stories, shuffling around such elements as a man trapped in an apartment building; a passive, possibly suicidal Englishman abroad; a military widower with a teenage daughter; and battles with hordes of cockroaches, modelled on those in his hotel room.
LRB 2 December 2010 | PDF Download