[Some of Uncle Edouard's advice to young Balthazar]
"About the routes to follow through life. Lighthearted on the boulevard, gay in the cafe, a good shot at the shoot. A flower delivered each morning to the door for the buttonhole. Put a smile on the face. Keep the collar worn loose at the throat. Move the bowel in the morning like the roar of a lion. Hum a lullaby while you pee. If you want to wear the toupee, which I do not suggest, always carry two. One for the white wine and one for the red. And when you drink the brandy you must of course be completely bald."
- J.P. Donleavy from The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J.P. Donleavy
"I live and draw a flow of gold. From a dead father's reservoir of riches. I retreat further and further back. Behind my own lonely elegance. Where no one will ever again get to know me. And speak less and less." These are the thoughts of Balthazar B, whose picaresque life story seems to prove F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that "the very rich are different from you and me." Actually, rich or poor, J. P. Donleavy's characters always appear to lead lives destroyed in some way by money.
Sebastian Dangerfield, the lusting, heroic anti-hero of Donleavy's comic first novel, The Ginger Man, was torn between fumbling seductions and desperate attempts to make ends meet. Balthazar B gropes endlessly for an enduring love, denied him at least partly because of his riches. He is born of wealthy French parents, and the circumstances connected with Balthazar's upbringing make him into a shy, porcelain personality curiously inept at coming to terms with life.
His mother neglects him for her lovers, so he attaches himself emotionally to a nanny and an eccentric uncle. The uncle, famous as an explorer and balloonist, fills little Balthazar's head with ideas that later crop up inappropriately in moments of crisis. For example, Balthazar is found drunkenly lost in a garden and is arrested for rape. He recalls Uncle's advice: "About the routes to follow through life. Lighthearted on the boulevard, gay in the cafe, a good shot at the shoot. A flower delivered each morning to the door for the buttonhole. Put a smile on the face. Keep the collar worn loose at the throat. Move the bowel in the morning like the roar of a lion. Hum a lullaby while you pee. If you want to wear the toupee, which I do not suggest, always carry two. One for the white wine and one for the red. And when you drink the brandy you must of course be completely bald."
Priapic Pranks. However, a rich lad's life is governed not only at home but also in a high-class English boarding school where golfing and keeping one's thoughts and actions dirt-free are more important than education. As the housemaster says, "When smuttiness comes smite it. And here we smite smut. Let there be no question about that. Our little golfers knock it for a loop."
It is a strange, unfriendly world. Young Balthazar's only male friend throughout his introverted existence is a chap named Beefy. An aristocratic orphan whose real name is also Balthazar, Beefy seems to be the protagonist's alter ego. Beefy is boisterous, tough, brawling, and given to priapic pranks. Starting with Beefy's expulsion from school for being a self-confessed "magnificent masturbator," their shared adventures—sometimes poignant, often comic—turn into wretched disasters.
For that matter, Balthazar's whole life appears predestined to failure. The idyl with his 24-year-old nanny Bella, when he is but twelve, leads to his first sexual experience, the fathering of a never-to-be-seen son, and an agonizing separation. His next amorous adventure, initiated by Beefy when they both turn up at Trinity College in Dublin, is with a poor working-class girl named Breda. For that, he and Beefy are both booted from college. An engagement to wealthy Miss Fitzdare ends in a tragic riding accident. And, trapped into an ugly, upper-class London marriage, he is further betrayed by his scheming wife. Always Balthazar is seduced and somehow left abandoned. Always he retreats a little further into the elegant prison of his refined sensibilities.
While the overall tone of the book is tragic and almost elegiac, the individual scenes are often hilarious and demonstrate Donleavy's adeptness at using his lyrical Joycean prose to explore human emotions. A scene of touching pathos, for example, is broken up when Balthazar is discovered naked and feverishly ill in Breda's bed by her employer's wife. The female fight that follows is unmatched in literature for its comic ferocity. Hair curlers are grabbed, bellies butted, Balthazar's breakfast food spilled, bottles of urine knocked over, dresses ripped—all while Balthazar lies abed and the mistress's husband tries to mediate as if he were secretary-general of the U.N. In the battle, the wife's false teeth are smashed. The husband's tragicomic speech caps the whole episode:
"Your woman when she married me had an awful resentment as I was with a full set of me own natural teeth. And she couldn't abide it as she was with out real ones of her own. She wasn't satisfied till I went to the dentist down there over the way and had every last one of mine torn out of my head and a set like her own put in. Here are hers now. Just look at that. Sure you never know where justice will strike next."
Delicate Troubles. Much of the book echoes The Ginger Man, particularly because Beefy is so reminiscent of that rascal O'Keefe, Sebastian Dangerfield's friend. And many of the sexual scenes, often dominated by Beefy's rhetoric, bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the earlier book. But there is a dramatic shift in focus from the blatant hardships of the lower classes in Ginger Man to the more subtle and delicate troubles of the moneyed aristocracy. In both cases, there doesn't seem to be much justice for such money-haunted people as Balthazar, Beefy, Dangerfield and O'Keefe. "God's mercy on the wild Ginger Man," wrote Donleavy. God's mercy on poor Balthazar B.
Like Balthazar B, James Patrick Donleavy, who is currently on a U.S. lecture tour, is a shy man with fine features and a soft, halting voice. And like Balthazar, he compensates for his shyness with a bold appearance, in this case, a scraggly Van Gogh kind of beard, heavy tweeds and knickers (augmented in foul weather by a cape and a Sherlock Holmes hat), and a walking stick. To all outward appearances, then, he seems like a turn-of-the-century product of the British Isles. In fact, he was born in Brooklyn of Irish parents.
After a Navy hitch in
World War II, he moved to Ireland, studied at Trinity College, married a Yorkshire
girl named Valerie and had two children (Philip, now 17, and Karen, 13). Brooklyn
boy or not, he is more comfortable taking tea at Fortnum & Mason's elegant
top-floor restaurant in London than he would be at Nathan's hot-dog emporium
in Coney Island.
Donleavy wrote The Ginger Man in 1951, but it was four years before he could find a publisher, Maurice Girodias of Paris' Olympia Press. Only too late did Donleavy discover that Girodias planned to make Ginger Man part of his notoriously pornographic Traveler's Companion Series (Until She Screams, Houses of Joy). Furious, Donleavy initiated a lawsuit against the publisher (it is still pending); he was convinced that his career was ruined forever. As it turned out, Ginger Man was a critical and popular hit, which established Donleavy's reputation as the forerunner of the Black Humorists. He doesn't like that classification at all, but then it beats the pornographer label.
He has since written two other novels (A Singular Man and The Saddest Summer of Samuel S), done play adaptations of those books, and a collection of short stories, Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule. His next novel, set in Western Ireland, will be called The Onion Enters, and Donleavy guarantees that it will be more scandalous than Balthazar B.
Nonskid. His literary struggles and success seem to have changed him. Money has removed him from the poor Irish farmhouse where the cows ate the cabbages. Now, at 42, he has six residences—three in London, the rest in the Isle of Man, Zurich and Manhattan —and carries currency of several nations to protect his "nonskid agility." He has also become more remote. "There was once a time," he has written, "when I could never get enough of drink and talk, but now I prefer the cocktail party which is utterly proper, where voices, incomes and laughter are carefully measured."
And when he is not bringing lawsuits against publishers, dictating to two secretaries or walking—mainly in cemeteries—he reads movie magazines, which in some perverse way he finds "so forthright, always telling the truth honestly. Some of the best writing is in movie magazines." As for his own writing, Donleavy prefers not to discuss it except to suggest that he is very practical-minded about his craft. "One day," he says, "while innocently looking in the window of an old established cheese shop in London, the definition of what writing is all about hit me. Writing is turning one's worst moments into money."
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