"And so I started the saga, and I was locked in litigation then with the Olympia Press for 22 years in various countries, mostly France, the United States and England. The outcome, finally, in this long, long saga was when my wife (I'd recently married) went off to Paris with my then secretary, and they succeeded in buying the Olympia Press at a bankruptcy auction of its assets. In a battle raging somewhere in some French court, the two protagonists were, on one side, a company owned by me and, on the other side, a company owned by me, so I ended up in the ridiculous situation of literally suing myself.""
- J.P. Donleavy from "PW Interviews J. P. Donleavy"
Interviews J. P. Donleavy"
Living among the Irish has given a new dimension to the life of an American-born author whose new book documents the stages of a feisty literary career
by Amanda Smith
To reach J. P. Donleavy these days, one takes a train from Dublin into the heartland of Ireland, green and either sunny, misty or soggy, depending on your luck. The destination is Mullingar; the ride along the bogs is a journey Joyce wrote about. In the town, a nun cheerfully points out to us the unmarked car that is a taxi, and a few minutes later we arrive at Levington Park, a gray-stone Queen Anne mansion, it too visited and described by Joyce in Stephen Hero.
Donleavy greets us in the surprisingly homey parlor of this splendid house, wearing tie and woolens - even though it's summer, it is still, after all, Ireland. He is trim and handsome, hair and beard nearly gone white, eyes simultaneously sad and merry, an elegant man who is enormously good company.
Donleavy is 60, a fact that seemingly has little to do with the vitality of the man himself. Behind him stretches a distinguished writing career including The Ginger Man, The Onion Eaters, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, A Fairy Tale of New York and A Singular Man. Almost complete now is Are You Listening Rabbi Löw, a sequel to Schultz.
His newest book, J. P. Donleavy's Ireland (Nonfiction Forecasts, Aug. 15), out from Viking this month, is no coffee table travel guide, but rather autobiography, recording selectively, among other things, his New York youth, university days at Trinity College, Dublin, his early years as a painter, nights in basement dens of iniquity, sundry episodes of human comedy, and the writing and tempestuous reception of The Ginger Man, still officially banned in Ireland as far as Donleavy knows, although freely available in shops there.
And of course, there are the literary figures, among them Brendan Behan, appropriating a suitcase full of Donleavy's shoes, changing them each time one pair became soggy and tossing the damp ones into the nearest field - all so he could walk to the local pub without getting his feet wet. And the celebrated scene at Donleavy's mother-in-law's house on the Isle of Man, when six Irish thugs and a Catholic bishop, sent by Edna O'Brien's family, arrived to wrest the young O'Brien from the clutches of Ernest Gébler, later to become her husband. Donleavy a notorious brawler and skillful boxer, came to the rescue: of the six teeth left behind on the patio, none were his. No wonder he has subtitled his book on Ireland, In All Her Sins and in Some of Her Graces.
"How does one like tea?" Donleavy asks us."Do people like it with milk or with lemon? The heavy tea drinkers say something about 'a spoon can stand up in it.'"
Donleavy's heritage, his accent, his use of language are a mixture of America, Ireland and England. He lived for many years in London until the day he walked into Fortnum and Mason and was standing by the tinned soups when "my wine advisor Mr. Young said in some surprise, 'Mr. Donleavy, what are you still doing here when authors have just become tax free in Ireland?'"
Only weeks later, Donleavy was pounding up a highway on his way back to Ireland. "No identification any longer fits," he says, "Now I would be looked upon as Ango-Irish Protestant in Ireland, no one here would associate me with being particularly Irish. In the United States, I would be looked upon as being perhaps English. In England, they would listen carefully, as the English do, trying to place the accent right away, and on that accent is your entire life, your income, everything you represent; every Englishman's ear is absolutely tuned to this. So I'm lost now totally, I think. I'm Irish in terms of blood - both my parents born in the country - and I've become an Irish national citizen. But never can anyone ever remove that American business - it's so indelible.
"My mother hasn't come to Ireland in many, many years, simply because she did not want to die in Ireland. To me, this is the ultimate Americanization of anyone, because that's the thing I feel about America, that I do not want to die there. For some reason, death has no fears here, and I accept it totally, but in the United States, I really worry about death and everything attached to it."
Donleavy's writing career began in Ireland in a singular fashion - writing forewards for his painting catalogues. "It must have been connected in some way with making your mark in the world and then, too, a consciousness, which I distinctly felt, of knowing that some part of one's life has disappeared and is over. And suddenly, you wished you had a picture of it." Both The Ginger Man and Donleavy's current book had to do with, he says, a "feeling that was a phrase in Ireland that ended when neon signs came. Dublin had wooden blocks paving it in those days, and every vista had been intact then. There isn't a street, I don't think anywhere, which shows any real sign of how it used to be."
Donleavy shows us about his home, many-roomed and expansive, here papered, there painted in Irish style of bright colors, especially orange. The rooms are almost sparely furnished and clearly functional: one large room is filled with huge floor cushions for the children to fall about on, a lovely dining room looks out on Lough Owel in the green distance. There's an unusual stone floor in the upstairs hall, a swimming pool and nine bathrooms and, of course, the room where Donleavy writes. The downstairs hallway contains the only private Guinness bar in the world, installed when Wine and Food magazine was doing a story on a hunt breakfast. Donleavy's second wife, Mary, and the couple's two children are passionate fox hunters, and, indeed, as we pass the mudroom with its lines of hunting hats, Donleavy shakes his head at the $200 cost of each. His own paintings in variety of styles hang throughout the house, which sits on some 180 acres, farmed by Donleavy and his staff.
Interviewers occasionally refer to Donleavy as a recluse and carp about the implied snobbishness of his digs. He points out that he grants interviews regularly, which rather defeats the charge. "No author can be a snob - he'd be out of business," Donleavy says, explaining that authors can't afford to distance themselves from the people who are their material. He refers to his estate forthrightly: "It's plant and machinery. Authors will seek out any kind of circumstance that allows them to work."
Donleavy arises early and works throughout the day, shadowboxing here and there to offset the sedentary nature of his craft, leaving off late in the afternoon. Were we not here, Donleavy tells us, "I would be out in one of the fields with a scythe cutting thistle and looking as any workman does in this place." He recounts with amusement a tale about the boyfriend of one of his secretaries who had read some of Donleavy's books and wanted a glimpse at the man himself. The secretary installed him in the lodge at the estate's entrance, where he bitterly complained some hours later upon her return, "I'm here all afternoon freezin' to death trying to get a look at him," only to be told that the workman 20 yards in front of his nose for two hours wielding pick and shovel and riding a tractor had been Donleavy.
Donleavy has always kept in shape, and his current passion - "a game I adore and love" - is De Alfonce Tennis, played on a small court with a very light racquet and a ball that deaccelerates. Donleavy is so devoted to the sport that to promote it, he spent two years writing De Alfonce Tennis, an amusing, eccentric history and rules of the game.
But he is better known for his fighting abilities, and after tea, we ask him for a demonstration of his obviously successful technique. "It's in the use of the arm," he tells us. "My fist is used just as you throw a whip. Plus the fact that you hit with an astonishing force, which is wrapped up in getting so much speed into a fist as it's thrown, as many as seven punches a second. It's being able to use your hand totally open, like a piece of spaghetti, that enables the arm to be used so fast," and as Donleavy warms up and begins throwing punches in the living room of his mansion, we hear the sound of the closing fist snapping in the air. "I'm deceptive in size, too. What would I weigh? A hundred and fifty-five or so, maybe. But my chest measurement is the same as Muhammad Ali's - 44. I certainly never would look for a fight or indeed visit violence on anyone. I would be ruthless with anyone who was bullying or picking on someone."
Fisticuffs aren't the only kind of battering Donleavy has done. He has been working for some time on a book about The Ginger Man and its complex legal history, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Dickens's Bleak House. Donleavy's novel was originally published by the Olympia Press - but in the pseudonymous pornographic series. "I was absolutely out of my mind with fury over this and, indeed, swore revenge, somehow, somewhere, sometime. And so I started the saga, and I was locked in litigation then with the Olympia Press for 22 years in various countries, mostly France, the United States and England. The outcome, finally, in this long, long saga was when my wife (I'd recently married) went off to Paris with my then secretary, and they succeeded in buying the Olympia Press at a bankruptcy auction of its assets. In a battle raging somewhere in some French court, the two protagonists were, on one side, a company owned by me and, on the other side, a company owned by me, so I ended up in the ridiculous situation of literally suing myself."
It's time to catch the evening train back to Dublin, and Donleavy drives us back to the station himself, stopping so that we can see what he terms "the most important hotel decoration in all the world." At his direction, we go into Mullingar's largest hotel to observe what turns out to be a full-sized wax effigy of James Joyce, who sits regarding not the book on his lap but the hotel reception desk next to him. Bizarre, we agree, rejoining Donleavy in his car, but we say, naively, how wonderful that the Irish have such regard for their writers. Not at all, he tells us; this is someone's idea of a money-making tourist attraction - before the wax Joyce was installed, there was a trout hanging on the wall.
And living among the Irish? "Literally, everywhere you go here, they're half nuts. It's very tough to discover real insanity, because the whole race is like that, and, indeed, this is the place to come if you're not right in the head. I said that once to a girl in London, a sort of British debutante who was awfully troubled by life and had a bit of money and could do what she liked. I said, 'Look, you know, why don't you go to Ireland? They're totally nuts.' Three or four years later, I came upon her, saw her laughing and gay. I said, 'Well, what happened to you? You must have hit the right psychiatrist.' 'No,' she said, 'I moved to Ireland. You were right.'"