"All one gets is what one fights for."
- J. P. Donleavy from "The Road From Smut to Classic: J.P. Donleavy Returns With a Ginger Man Guidebook"
Road From Smut to Classic: J.P. Donleavy Returns With a Ginger Man Guidebook"
by Colin Lacey
DWARFED beneath the baroque high ceiling of one of New York's stuffiest private clubs, author J.P. Donleavy is apologetic, and gently concerned that his membership privileges are insufficient to admit the Irish Voice beyond the waiting area in the lobby.
"It seems the management doesn't permit guests in members' rooms," he says quietly, "and the members' sitting room is also off-limits. It's their policy, I'm afraid. But we can talk in the lobby lounge. If that suits you, of course."
Frankly, it's difficult to imagine that this soft-spoken, urbane gentleman in a comfortable tweed suit and thick-lensed reading glasses is the creator of some of literature's most egregious serial drinkers, brawlers, and sexual debauchees. But beginning with his first novel, The Ginger Man (currently available from Atlantic Press) [now from Grove Press], Brooklyn-born Donleavy has produced a body of work that has been condemned and denounced as offensive, misogynist, and even pornographic by everyone from Vatican spokesmen to feminist groups. To his many fans however, novels like Schultz, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, A Fairy Tale of New York, and The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman are exuberant celebrations of carnality, bursting at the seams with humor, realism, and enthusiasm.
The Ginger Man, Donleavy's best known and most notorious work, is set in post-World War II Ireland, and features Sebastian Dangerfield, a boozing, womanizing, prolifigate American student at Trinity College. The book was turned down by more than 40 American and British publishers who feared its sexual frankness would invite prosecution under obscenity laws. The Ginger Man was finally issued by Olympia Press of Paris in 1955, but without Donleavy's knowledge, and to his horror - it was included as part of that company's pornographic 'Travelers Companion' series.
The Ginger Man ultimately went on to become a cult favorite. The book has never been out of print, and has sold over five million copies in fifteen countries [over 40 million in 30 languages by 2007 count], inspired a stage play, and according to many critics, ingeniously anticipated the candid sexual mores of the 1960s. After 25 years of legal wrangling, Donleavy finally wrested control of the novel from Olympia Press by buying the whole company.
In his latest book, The History of The Ginger Man (Houghton Mifflin, $32.50), Donleavy tells the story of the writing, publication, and legal battle behind his first novel. At once an autobiography, a reminiscence of the wild characters of 1940s Dublin that inspired his fiction as well as a look into the unscrupulous world of international book publishing, The History of The Ginger Man is manna from Heaven for Donleavy fans. It's written in the author's signature over-wrought Joycean style, and filled with photographs of Donleavy and his circle, Dublin and Wicklow landmarks, and illustrations of early drafts of The Ginger Man. While it's unlikely to lure many new admirers, Donleavy can be assured that there's a substantial army of Ginger Man devotees who will happily lap it up, and enough interest in the Dublin literary scene to keep the cash register hopping.
"I became aware that the story behind The Ginger Man was just an astonishing saga," says Donleavy, who lives on a 180-acre estate in Mullingar, County Westmeath. "Because of the legal situation with the book, it became an obsession for me, a very significant part of my entire life. I had planned for a long time to write about the book, about the circumstances in which it was written, and what became of it over almost three decades, and now, finally, I've been able to give it the attention it deserves."
When The Ginger Man first appeared, critics called it 'picaresque,' which meant it had lots of sex, and Sebastian Dangerfield 'a rogue,' which meant the sex involved him and a long sequence of apparently interchangeable women. Dragging the explicitly un-politically correct Sebastian Dangerfield onto center stage again with The History of The Ginger Man is bound to ruffle some feathers, albeit in less extreme degrees than those faced by the original novel. But Donleavy is no stranger to criticism.
"At the time The Ginger Man was published, there was little precedent for fiction of this kind in a middle class setting," he says. "Henry Miller (also reviled by feminists as a pornographer) was the only other writer I knew who was trying something similar. What really upset people, I think, is that Sebastian Dangerfield wanted to conform to society's standards. But, for whatever reasons, he simply couldn't. The book offended many, of course, because the culture then didn't discuss the things the book discussed, but if offended the Church in particular. The Church was an enormous cultural influence in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, but its power is waning now, and some might say I'm one of the reasons for that.
"Clearly this politically correct business would affect how the book would be received now." he adds. "I have no doubt it would come under fire from feminists. But I've been fortunate to know enough women to understand that The Ginger Man is not an insult to them - maybe to feminists, but not to the women I know."
While that may indicate as much about Donleavy's friends as it does about the impact of The Ginger Man, it can't be denied that, for those who have read the novel, Sebastian Dangerfield is a striking character. According to The History of The Ginger Man, Dangerfield was based on Gainor Crist, an American contemporary of Donleavy's at Trinity.
"The model was Crist, but much of the book, as is true for probably all my books, was emotionally autobiographical," says Donleavy. "Many of the situations and incidents in The Ginger Man were experienced by myself, and both Crist and I have the same background as Sebastian Dangerfield. So although it's obviously fictionalized, many of the incidents are based on real experiences."
The History of The Ginger Man is filled with often hilarious details of Donleavy's life while writing the novel, and with accounts of Crist, and a host of others from Dublin's literary and bar scenes. The early part of the book also features figures from the Irish literary arena, including Brendan Behan, whom Donleavy credits for providing the first positive response to The Ginger Man while still in manuscript form.
Dublin's vibrant social scene of the 1940s and 50s was fueled primarily by alcohol, and like the fictional heroes of his novels, Donleavy was no stranger to booze. In The History of The Ginger Man, he confesses to being belligerent and paranoid when intoxicated - so much so that even the most innocuously critical remark often precipitated fistfights and skirmishes that spilled from bars onto Dublin's streets and back into the bars again.
His hell-raising days ended, he says, as his writing increased in importance.
"There comes a certain point in one's life when continuing like that is unaffordable - not in terms of money, but in terms of the other things one loses," he says. "A writer's life is a sentence, a monastic lifestyle, so if one is serious about writing, one must decide to isolate oneself from company for long periods, and certainly from such destructive behavior."
Donleavy was so serious about The Ginger Man that after it was published as pornography by Olympia Press (who also published Nabakov's [sic] Lolita as part of the same series), he fought on its behalf for a quarter of a century.
"It was horrifying to see what they did," says Donleavy, evidently still angry about how The Ginger Man was treated.
"Olympia Press was primarily a pornography factory that commissioned writers to quickly produce obscene literature. Incidentally, Behan tried his hand at it, but was rejected. But it took me four years to write The Ginger Man, and they destroyed it so quickly. It was a disaster, personally and artistically. It affected the book's reception so completely that I couldn't even get it reviewed unless I knew the reviewer, and even then it was difficult because I was identified by the public as a pornographer.
"I knew I had to fight on behalf of the book, because basically, all one gets is what one fights for, and after the fact of publication, money was the next thing."
Twenty-five years of legal disputes over ownership of the copyright for The Ginger Man ended in 1979, when Donleavy became the sole owner of Olympia and its copyrights. Now the book is set to enter another stage in its history, with a film version planned for late 1994. Although Donleavy couldn't confirm it, the rumors are that the role of Sebastian Dangerfield will be taken by Aidan Quinn, with a script by Donleavy himself.
"There have been numerous talks over the years about filming The Ginger Man, but this one seems as if it will go ahead," says Donleavy, touching an antique mahogany table for luck, "We have a good director in David Jones (Kafka), and my son is involved in the production, so hopefully this one will work.
"Actually, this will not be my first exposure to the film world. I'm one of the few people around today who trained in film at Ealing Studios in England. My film was never made, but I wrote a script called The Rich Goat, about an American who comes to the west of Ireland to track down money from a will. Orson Welles read it and said it was the best film script he'd ever seen. I almost meant to pick it up again and do something about it."
The Rich Goat may have to wait, however. For now, Donleavy is working on at least three new books.
"I've written all the notes for The Unexpurgated Code of Growing Old, which is somewhat similar to The Unexpurgated Code [Donleavy's irreverent book of unmentionable etiquette], but deals with the concept of aging." He adds, "And of course there's the third volume of the Schultz story, and the fourth part of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman."
Even at 67, Donleavy shows little indication that he intends to rest on his laurels.
"There's always the impulse to publish," he adds with a smile.
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