"When I started to write The Ginger Man, I had, without realising it, discovered a fresh way of just sitting down and being conscious that I could do whatever I liked somehow - I was adapting the use of the language simply to make it work at its most efficient. In terms of originality, I had the opportunity to indulge due to not having the idea of 'writers who read books become writers.'"

- J.P. Donleavy from "Iconic Man of Letters"

Photo by Kieran Clancy
The following article first appeared in The Irish Examiner, May 21, 2005.

"Iconic man of letters"

by John Daly

JP Donleavy has sold 40 million books in 20 languages, making him one of the greatest figures in Irish literary history. John Daly meets him on the 50th anniversary of his masterpiece, The Ginger Man

When an unknown American student named Donleavy took time out from his Trinity College lectures to pen a debut novel, he had little idea just how far this literary flight of fancy would change his life.

The year: 1954. The book: The Ginger Man. In a 50-year journey where the exploits of Sebastian Dangerfield have prompted gasps of horror and ripples of hilarity in equal measure across the world, JP Donleavy's masterpiece has gone on to modern classic status with 40 million sales in 20 languages.

Never out of print since its arrival in 1954, The Ginger Man has remained one of Ireland's top selling books and is included in the Modern Library's Best 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century. More importantly, it joined classics like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Lolita in having challenged the overly strict censorship laws in the US and Europe to deliver contemporary authors a freedom of expression that is often taken for granted. For JP Donleavy, the literary birth of The Ginger Man was an occasion demanding more than one midwife.

"It was enormously difficult to find a publisher - many were frightened to take it on due to its subject matter," he explains in a soft accent which still carries a hint of his New York roots despite having lived in Ireland for the past 60 years. "Strangely enough, it was my friendship with Brendan Behan that eventually led to the book finding someone who would take it on. Brendan had read the original manuscript and took a keen in my getting it out there. I'd come back from America where at least six publishers had rejected it when he suggested I send it to the Olympia Press in Paris."

A publishing house noted for its connections to Beckett, Joyce and Henry Miller, Behan felt it might be a sympathetic institution for a script whose overt sexuality had raised conservative hackles elsewhere else. Donleavy points out that the Behan connection went deeper than just literary comradeship - the 'Quare Fella' had played an integral role in the book's creation.

"I was living in Wicklow and Behan sort of 'let himself' into my abode during my absence," he says with a smile. "You couldn't really call it burglary; he was always turning up on a sofa next morning after a night out - nobody was keen on locks and things back in those days. While making himself at home, he came across my manuscript and read it, making a good number of editorial suggestions on the margins of the script. Behan hated the country, but would often come to call for brief visits during which he'd visit many of the local pubs and help himself to a pair of my shoes when his own got wet crossing the fields."

For the debut novelist, the intrusion paid its own dividends. "Infuriatingly, all of Behan's suggestions made perfect sense to the manuscript and I ended up using every one of them."

For a book that would go on to become a studied text in academia across the world, The Ginger Man had humble beginnings.

"I agreed a deal with Olympia Press for the sum of £300 and I remember being paid in the basement of a shop in Soho - a rather inauspicious beginning," he says. "The publisher, Maurice Girondas [sic], was, among his many guises, a purveyor of pornographic material - what would be called nowadays 'soft porn,' I believe. When the book was eventually published, it came out as part of a pornographic series called The Traveler's Companion. I remember well that the back jacket of The Ginger Man carried an advert for another salacious tome called White Thighs: The Sexual Life Of Robinson Crusoe. Naturally, I was outraged because I knew nobody would review it given its connotation to pornography."

After an 18-year struggle to buy back the rights to The Ginger Man, Donleavy eventually bought the Olympia Press when poor trading forced Girondas [sic] to sell the business.

The Ginger Man was banned in Ireland until well into the 1970s - a fate common to many literary excursions that ran against the repressive ethos of the time. A quick scan of another Dangerfield romp within its pages proves the point: "I must toll Mary over on her back because lumps of coal are pressing into my spine. Whee. Like turning turtle. Over you go. Wow, what a wench and puffing heavily. Do my most penetrative thinking just slopping around with someone else's body, penetrating to the root. How many more interesting things can be done with thirty pounds than keeping it in the bank."

In a long-gone Dublin of gullible shopkeepers, grim tenements, bedraggled urchins, dubious priests and affectionate laundrywomen, Dangerfield dices with debt and jealous husbands while dreaming of a cushy job with Lloyds of London en route to his legendary status.

Despite his 79 years, this man, who remains forever synonymous with a book written 50 years ago, continues to single-handedly operate 200 acres of prime farmland and a mixed herd of over 80 cattle surrounding his home, Levington Hall [sic], on the outskirts of Mullingar. Little wonder that this initially shy individual becomes more animated upon a discussion of suitable winter grazing than he does about any literary laurels he might sit on.

"Things have become much changed since I first came here 35 years ago. With the coming urbanization edging closer every year, one of my greatest daily concerns is about proper fencing and the danger of animals straying."

Sitting in the grand reception room of this house, originally built by Sir Richard Leving in 1740, the atmosphere is one of antiquated ease. Sotheby's catalogues piled on the table; a gilt mirror emblazoned with the Donleavy crest; invites to society gatherings on the mantel; and a grand piano idle in the far corner. About the walls are canvases of his own artistic leanings - spindly sausage dogs, men in big hats, the occasional reclining nude, and barren landscapes full of ominous tombstone crosses.

While the tweeds and well modulated tones agree with the physical image one expects of Donleavy as landed gentry, the engaging and switched-on personality brimming with curiosity is immediately at odds with his common perception as an eccentric recluse - the happy hermit with a roving eye.

"I couldn't entirely disagree with those who might label me a recluse," he smiles. "I'm fascinated with it because it is not something I have ever striven to be. As a writer, isolation is part of the life you lead and I think I would more readily describe myself as a farmer rather than a writer. Living where I do allows for a kind of privacy that's less and less easy to come across anymore and I find myself settling into it with greater ease as the years pass."

After his stint in the US Navy during World War II, the young Donleavy arrived in the 1940s at Trinity College with his GI Bill earnings and a generous allowance for [sic] his parents. Recalling the Dublin of the time as being populated by roving bands of barefoot street urchins begging pennies amid a grey all-consuming poverty pervading the very air of the city, it was his identity as an affluent Yank that created many of those halcyon episodes from whence Sebastian Dangerfield and other rich literary creations would eventually emerge.

"Dublin in those days was the kind of place where people would happily walk many miles on a daily basis in the vain hope of receiving a bundle of sausages that someone might give them, and then walk back with them - it was that kind of existence. My own personal life, on the other hand, was extraordinarily affluent because I had the GI Bill and an allowance."

Within the high walls of Trinity, a world of gracious ease unfolded for the chosen few: "Some time ago I had one of my old college bills framed, which I found in an old book - the cost was £18 for an entire quarter term. That included a full-time college servant, one big meal every single day at the Commons plus a bottle of milk, and your gas and electricity - all of that included in the price. It gives you some idea of the extraordinary world we lived in. The Dublin of those days never leaves my mind."

While Donleavy studied medicine at Trinity, much of his time was spent painting, an activity that, in time, allowed him to unleash the literary muse.

"I suppose the writing really began when I would find myself penning forewards to art exhibition catalogues, and eventually I suppose I was having the exhibitions just as an excuse to write the forewords," he laughs softly. Lost weekends in The Bailey and McDaid's figured heavily among the social pursuits. Donleavy's lack of formal training in the craft of writing, he feels, contributed much to the finished product.

"When I started to write The Ginger Man, I had, without realising it, discovered a fresh way of just sitting down and being conscious that I could do whatever I liked somehow - I was adapting the use of the language simply to make it work at it's [sic] most efficient. In terms of originality, I had an opportunity to indulge due to not having the idea of 'writers who read books become writers.'"

From the isolated splendour of Levington Hall [sic], JP Donleavy shakes his head in wonder at the many roads down which Sebastian Dangerfield has led him over 50 years.

"I have always been quite amazed by what the book seems to mean to people and the kind of universal following it has generated. In monetary terms, it has not been anything of a goldmine for me. I have actually done much better with books like The Beastly Beatitudes Of Balthazar B or the Darcy Dancer series."

And yet, even for someone who prizes his anonymity, the affection for a younger day and different Dublin remains. "People who've read the book and seen my picture will sometimes recognise me as we pass. They identify with things in the book and remember the face. I know when someone recognises me who has read The Ginger Man - they always break into a smile or grin as they walk past me."

He pauses for a final glint: "There are worse epitaphs for a person to have."

To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.

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