I can pinpoint the moment that reading literature changed for me back to the day Troubles was introduced as a set text for my English literature A Level in 1989. The set texts we had that year were mostly hugely enjoyable, if somewhat challenging: Chaucer's Nun's Priest's tale, Hamlet, Richard II and Keats - writing about whom I attained a 'Z' grade for one particularly terrible essay.
On the novel side I remember two texts now. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, which we read first and Troubles by an Irish writer called J.G. Farrell whom none of us had ever heard of, but of whom our teacher, a cultured if austere man called Hugh Bazley (fondly remembered), was clearly a big fan.
I hated Hardy with a passion. Having had to read Tess the previous year and The Mayor of Casterbridge before that and being very young and very stupid, I couldn't find a single redeeming feature of his writing. If Tess was bad, The Woodlanders was beyond terrible. Dreary country folk doing nothing much. Like I said, at 16, mostly stupid. (Later I read Jude and began to understand the point a little better).
But then we were presented with Troubles, and it blew me away.
It is 1919, and Major Brendan Archer arrives from at the Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough from the trenches of the Great War to claim his fiancée Angela Spencer, daughter of the hotel's pro-British proprietor Edward. 1919 is a pivotal moment in Irish history with British rule crumbling away.
The Majestic is a crumbling wreck and a mere shadow of its glamorous past as a fashionable, grand establishment. As such it presents a microcosm of the dying days of Empire - the theme covered in Farrell's other completed works, The Siege Of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip - and the head-in-the-sand denial of those in authority. Herds of cats roam the upper floors of the hotel just as the foundations are disturbed by the roots of out-of-control plants downstairs. Only a few residents remain, all living increasingly detached lives, including Spencer.
When you read this book as a teenager, the first thing that stands out is that Troubles is very very funny (unlike The Woodlanders) while at the same time melancholic. To that point in my reading life those books I had not been bored senseless by were pretty one-dimensional, and here was something completely different - subtle, nuanced, complex. Troubles didn't reveal all of its charms at first, taking a second reading and, happily, all the analysis we undertook in class helped.
My most striking memory of Troubles is feeling a mixture of exasperation and sympathy for Major Archer who largely allowed events to swirl around him without ever seeming to have the willingness or energy to intervene. Archer appeared to be a character for whom resolution, or perhaps even reality, was out of his grasp. As a teenager - and still the same largely stupid boy that dismissed Hardy's rural ramblings - naturally I didn't read the lessons of this. As an adult they are more apparent, more evident in everyday life.
Troubles might be the single most influential book on my reading. It really was an introduction to beautiful prose, to the endless mesmeric power of the novel, an to ideas in novels and to multi-dimensional characters who spoke to life and its complexities rather than merely the narrow corridor of their own stories. As such it was a window on the world and the exciting, never-ending world of literature.
I spent many years buying Troubles as birthday and Christmas presents for various friends and family. I bought a special edition of The Siege of Krishnapur for a friend living an ex-pat life in India, and one of my prized shelf-dwelling possessions is a first edition of The Singapore Grip I found in a used book shop in Woodbridge. I regret losing my annotated A-Level copy.
It has been gratifying to discover that Troubles, which has not been in print consistently since I read it in 1989, found a new audience and fresh critical acclaim when it won the "Lost Booker Prize" in 2008. I hope that somewhere in a few weeks time, an English teacher unveils it to an unsuspecting A-Level class room...