Spice of Life"
by James Campbell
John [sic] Patrick Donleavy left New York for Dublin, where he studied science and became a painter. He wrote The Ginger Man, and was sued by its French publisher: their legal battle ended with the author owning the company. Twelve novels later, he continues to write, in longhand, in an Irish country house, and his first book remains in print 50 years after publication.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1954, JP Donleavy wrote the letter that would determine the course of his life. The recipient was Maurice Girodias, proprietor of the Olympia Press in Paris. "Dear Sir, I have a manuscript of a novel in English called 'Sebastian Dangerfield'." The book, later renamed The Ginger Man, had been rejected by more than 30 publishers, partly on account of its at times baffling, stream-of-consciousness narrative, but more because of its ribald content. "The obscenity is very much part of this novel," cautioned the author. But he took care to add that "extracts... have been published in the Manchester Guardian".
Recent productions of the Olympia Press in mid-1954 included Watt by Samuel Beckett, The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet, classic works of erotica such as Fanny Hill and novels by Guillaume Apollinaire and Georges Bataille, all in English. At the time, Girodias was considered to be a publisher of risqué books of literary quality (soon to follow was the most famous of all Olympia publications, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov) but not cheap pornography. However, the latter was about to become Girodias's speciality. He bought Donleavy's novel for £250, and included it in his latest list, The Traveller's Companion Series, with titles such as School for Sin, White Thighs, The Whip Angels and Rape, all advertised at the back of The Ginger Man, which itself bore the ambiguous recommendation "special volume". Donleavy collected his £250 in cash from a middleman in a Soho bookshop. "When I discovered that the novel was published in this pornographic series," Donleavy says, with as much feeling now as ever, "I realised I would never have any reputation, that the book would never exist in any real form - it was just a piece of pornography. It wouldn't get any reviews. It was a total nightmare."
On receiving his first copies in the post from Paris, Donleavy smashed his fist "with all my might upon the cover of the book". He swore that "if it were the last thing I ever did, I would redeem and avenge this work". He took his revenge. It was not to be his final act, and it required more than 20 years of litigation, begun when Girodias sued him for breaking their contract. The process ended - in a coup so stunning that even his tormentor had to applaud - with Donleavy owning the Olympia Press.
A slim, neat man with white hair and beard, he is remarkably agile for one approaching 80. "He's a man of instant trust and credibility," says his younger brother TJ, a painter and sculptor, who lives in New York. "He doesn't stand for any shenanigans in general conduct. When he has a feeling for someone, it's about honesty. When we were boys he was always quick to defend anyone who was being bullied. Size wouldn't mean anything to him." Donleavy lives in Levington Park, a country house on 200 acres near the town of Mullingar in the Irish Midlands. The house presents a bare, stony front to the world, with little hint of the farmyard and the warren of corridors and rooms spread out behind. In one room stands what he claims is the only fireplace of fossilised marble in Ireland; in another is a swimming pool. Across the meadows is Lough Owel, which is mentioned in the "Calypso" section of Ulysses. It is said (though it is hard to prove) that James Joyce slept at Levington Park, while his father was on business in Mullingar.
Donleavy likes the Joyce connection. He has lived here since 1972. He separated from his first wife, Valerie Heron, the mother of his eldest children, Philip and Karen, in the 1950s. Karen is a successful ceramicist, while Philip works in film. Later, Donleavy married Mary Wilson Price, who has since remarried into the Guinness family, and a further two children, twins Rebecca and Rory, were born. For company, he has a herd of Hereford cattle, a pair of cheeky farm cats, a man who helps with the cows and a secretary who helps with most other things. He must be the only living author to have placed a lonely-hearts advertisement in one of his own books ( An Author and His Image: The collected short pieces , 1997): "Slightly reclusive but anxious to get out more, gracefully older fit man... requires pleasantly attractive younger lady of principle." His rectangular living room is a homely clutter of grand piano, peeling plaster, old newspapers and memorabilia, including several photographs of himself affecting a more severe attitude than he has in person. A few Christmas cards remain on display into summer. Billy Connolly, who once acted triumphantly in a Donleavy play, sends one every year. "I can't stand to throw them away," he says, laughing at himself as he does frequently, "especially those with photographs of people's children and so on. You feel if you throw them away something dreadful might happen." The walls are hung with colourful paintings by Donleavy and his brother.
James Patrick Donleavy, "Mike" to his friends, was born in Woodlawn, New York City, in 1926, the son of Irish immigrants. His father had studied for the priesthood and on arriving in the US, as Donleavy puts it, "didn't have a pot to piss in". His mother was taken to New York by "a very rich Australian uncle". When Donleavy flew across the Atlantic to study sciences at Trinity College, Dublin, at the end of the second world war, his mother was able to provide an allowance so he could live in style with rooms and "a white-coated servant who would serve tea in the afternoons and Madeira". He moved to London in the early 1950s, then to the Isle of Man, where his first wife's family lived, but later returned to Ireland to enjoy the tax regulations advantageous to writers and artists. Donleavy's accent, which he described long ago as "rather choice English... which when it slips has an even better one underneath", is nevertheless sturdily New York at its foundations. "He was quite well off and a bit reclusive even then," recalls Anthony Cronin, a poet and author of the classic memoir of Dublin literary life, Dead as Doornails. "He was a presence. He was rather striking looking, with hawkish features and a little beard, which would be unusual. You couldn't say he was part of the literary scene, though there was talk of a big novel about Dublin. But everybody was talking about writing a big novel."
At Trinity, Donleavy first set himself up as a painter (his debut show was in Dublin in 1950, the most recent in London in 2002), and it was while still a student that he began to write The Ginger Man. Critics have ranked its hero Sebastian Dangerfield with the Angry Young Men and even the Beat generation, but he has no obvious social purpose other than to bed as many women as possible, between visits to a giddying variety of pubs. Everything goes wrong for Sebastian, yet everything somehow turns out right. Near the end of the novel, on a visit to London, he notices a servant draw back the curtains in a large house, and cries out: "That's good to see... I haven't seen such wealth for years. Not for years. And I need it. Need it." Donleavy points out that Sebastian is someone who is "waiting to come into his estate". Most readers, however, "are overwhelmed by this other picture of the man as a poverty-stricken, low-life type, which is false".
Sebastian was based on Donleavy's friend at Trinity, Gainor Stephen Crist, also an American. Cronin recalls Crist as "a gent. Bowler-hatted. He carried a stick, an actual cane. A very charming fellow, very intelligent, with no artistic ambitions." Crist was "kind of gentle", Cronin says, whereas Sebastian exudes violence. "I think Donleavy attributed some of his own qualities to Gainor, and therefore to Dangerfield. I wouldn't have recognised Dangerfield as Crist, but like all fictional creations it departed from life."
Crist is thought to have died en route to America in 1964. Apparently a cross marks a grave in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, but to Donleavy his disappearance is "a mystery, a great mystery. I haven't solved it yet." Ten years ago, near Grafton Street in Dublin, Donleavy saw a half-familiar figure across the street, "and he was making these nervous, fidgeting movements with his fingers. And I thought: that looks like Gainor Crist. I walked on, and then I stopped in my tracks. My God, I said to myself, no one who knew Gainor Crist ever saw him dead. He had a lot of problems, with his marriage and so on. He may just have decided to disappear. And I later found out that one of his favourite songs was a ballad with the line, 'Don't bury me in Santa Cruz'." But according to reports around the time of his disappearance, Crist had the DTs and was suffering from pneumonia. "It's an interesting theory," Cronin says of the notion that the original Dangerfield lives on in Dublin, "but it's more interesting that Donleavy should think of it."
The Ginger Man still reads well today, once one becomes accustomed to its headlong rush of style, its frequent verbless sentences, the switch of tenses and the manic swing between first and third persons as it lunges to catch the protagonist's babbling thoughts: "Sebastian went looking for aspirin. The house looks unusually empty. The closet. Marion's clothes are gone. Just my broken rubbers on the floor. The nursery. Cleaned out. Bare. Take that white cold hand off my heart." In other places, the prose hops along alliteratively, with hints of Joyce and Dylan Thomas. Many chapters end with a snatch of verse, a habit that began in Donleavy's first book and became his signature tune. At the close of the novel, he signed off plaintively:
On the wild
Forty years later, in The History of The Ginger Man, he wrote:
When you find a friend
Who is good and true
Before he fucks you
Although the novel was banned in Ireland until the 70s, the novelist John Banville discovered a copy of the original Paris edition as a teenager in Dublin in the early 1960s. "I haven't read it since," he says, "but I greatly admired it then. What struck me most forcibly about the book was not the humour or the sex, but the sense of sweet and delicate melancholy that clings to the pages. I thought it that rare thing in a novel, a genuine work of art. Would I feel the same if I were to reread it now? I don't know. It's too big a risk to take."
Donleavy has written 12 novels since The Ginger Man, and a dozen other books and plays. He has recently completed a new novel, to be called A Letter Marked Personal, but is destined to be forever associated with his first book, and appears content that it be so. In conversation, he is apt to refer to it simply as "the book", or even "the manuscript". He has adapted it as a play, written a screenplay (though no film has been made), composed The History of The Ginger Man (1994), and in What They Did in Dublin with The Ginger Man (1961) has given a separate account of the play's brief run in Ireland before it was hounded from the stage after three nights by a combination of press and clergy.
"I knew I had to write a book that was the best in the world. It was as simple as that. Brendan Behan told me, 'Mike, this book is gonna beat the Bible'... Well, you know, people say these things." Behan was the first person to read The Ginger Man and to offer an evaluation. "I was away for a few days and he broke into the cottage where I lived and found the manuscript in my studio. He plumped his own manuscript next to it, Borstal Boy (1958), and wrote editorial suggestions all over my pages. When I got back I found all my shoes were missing. When I saw the manuscript of Borstal Boy, I knew who had been there. The nerve! He even autographed the thing. But then I began to look at his comments, and I ended up following every single suggestion. People didn't take Behan seriously, because of his behaviour."
If The Ginger Man hasn't beaten the Bible, it has provided Donleavy with his house and his acres - the book has never been out of print.
During the legal marathon with Girodias, it was said that both sides were funding their campaigns with profits from the novel. "I never set out to ruin Girodias," Donleavy says. "He was always the aggressive one. He sued me because I wanted to have the book published properly in England. It's ironic that I should sit here owning him." When Donleavy sold the rights to publish the novel in Britain to a small London firm, now defunct, called Neville Spearman, Girodias argued that no such entitlement was provided by the terms of their agreement, and took him to court. Twenty years later, the two parties were still suing each other, under the guise of phantom companies - Donleavy was "The Little Someone Corporation" - with no end in sight. Girodias had declared himself bankrupt, and was preparing to buy back the title of his beloved Olympia Press at an auction in Paris. Donleavy learned of the sale and sent his wife to France with a large sum in cash. When bidding went over $8,000, Girodias ran out of money. The mysterious woman (as Girodias saw her) made a final bid, and the Olympia Press belonged to Donleavy. In an interview not long before he died in 1991, Girodias called the story "fabulous. Much better than the book, actually." Donleavy says that Girodias wrote to him afterwards, offering to buy back the company. "He said if you don't want to do it, just tear up this letter."
The poet Christopher Logue, who had several books published by the Olympia Press (including Lust under the pseudonym "Count Palmiro Vicarion"), visited Donleavy in his house in Fulham in the 1950s. "I looked at the books. They were law books. On copyright. There were no other books in the house." Most of the books in the living room at Levington Park today are by Donleavy, and most of those are various editions of The Ginger Man. In his memoir, Prince Charming (1999), Logue recalled Donleavy nursing an obsessive grudge, while Donleavy remembers Logue asking him not to be too hard on Girodias. Donleavy adds: "I am not someone who takes revenge lightly. But there was no doubt that I was not going to let anything be done to that book that was detrimental. That is why I'm a different kettle of fish to most authors. I've never had anything happen in my life, from the literary world, in the way of a pat on the back or encouragement or anything else. All I've ever known are lawyers and litigation and attacks from every source possible."
When Donleavy's second novel, A Singular Man, was delivered to Atlantic Monthly Press, the Boston firm that was eager to publish it, some senior employees recoiled at the sexual content, which is more explicit than that of The Ginger Man. They informed the author of their wish to withdraw from the contractual agreement. Donleavy responded with a letter stating his intention "to institute proceedings and to seek damages of not less than $375,000". He confides that the insertion of an odd figure such as "75" is a good ruse when threatening damages - or, even better, "something like $375,236 and 41 cents". The Atlantic executives promptly affirmed their willingness to publish A Singular Man, "despite our confidence that we can win any lawsuit that might be commenced", and the novel came out on schedule in November 1963. TJ Donleavy feels that the combination of literary life and legal action was "something Mike found very romantic. When it happens, everybody wants to know about it. But people don't have a lot of luck with him, when they take him on, because he's a very good lawyer. He's a logician. He could have been a chess master if he chose."
A Singular Man is the story of a recluse involved in all-consuming litigation with obscure parties whose only apparent purposes are postponement and obfuscation. On the opening page, the protagonist George Smith receives a legal letter headed "The Building. You well know which year." The message reads, in full: "Dear Sir, Only for the moment are we saying nothing." This is what Donleavy calls his "empirical letter", and he himself has written many over the years. After the Atlantic fiasco, the editor who had enticed him to the firm, Seymour Lawrence, felt obliged to leave, and started his own company. "I became beset by doubts as to whether this venture would work out," wrote Lawrence, who died in 1994, "when one day Donleavy rang from London and gave me this advice: all you need to be a publisher is one room, one desk, one phone and one author. I'll be that author." It was not until 1965, 10 years after The Ginger Man's insalubrious Paris debut, that Lawrence was able to publish an unexpurgated edition of The Ginger Man in the United States. In Ireland, TJ says, "They'd find it in your luggage at Customs and just take it."
Invited to discuss the prose style that emerged fully formed in his first novel, Donleavy hesitates. "My big advantage is being practically uneducated, for a start, and my grammar being appalling. I grew up in a country where language is manufactured all the time, but something original did come out, I presume through the rewriting, when I began to see that the brain would unconsciously go to the first and third person. Being a writer is just catching your unconscious. Another thing is that my background at university was all science - bacteriology and so on - and that must have been an influence. Then I just focused on how to get the word off the page and into the reader's brain, as directly as possible." He claims not to have read Hemingway, for example - "not more than a page or two. I'm not literary in that sense of reading books." TJ Donleavy compares his brother to Mark Twain, as a "great democrat", but adds, "he himself is not influenced by Twain. He wouldn't have been exposed to his books. I know he didn't read Tom Sawyer in his early days. He wasn't a literary boy, no way. He's a natural."
If The Ginger Man led to an early coupling with the kitchen-sink school of writing that was growing popular at the time of the book's appearance, Donleavy decisively ended the association with his subsequent novels. After depicting the "limozine" life of George Smith, Donleavy began his elevation to the country-house world. Logue remembers him talking of a planned play, to be called simply "Wealth". Darcy Kildare, who features in a trilogy of novels, beginning with The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (1977), continuing with Leila (1983) and concluding with That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman (1990), romps around in a world of crumbling estates and horsey occupations. The hero of Donleavy's third novel, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968), we learn in the opening paragraph, "was born in Paris in a big house on a little square off Avenue Foch. Of a mother blonde and beautiful and a father quiet and rich." These characters are pampered by a retinue of devoted servants and hopelessly loving, seductive nannies. In author photographs dating from the 1960s, Donleavy is typically shown buttoned up in a tweed suit, with plus-fours and a knobbly cane. In An Author and His Image, which shows his dry humour to good effect, he remarked that "the only people with time to waste in my company and at the same time willing to be pleasant to me have been persons who have had private incomes". His second wife, whom he met when she auditioned for a part in the stage adaptation of A Singular Man, bred horses at Levington Park, and organised hunting parties. "So that got me into that world," Donleavy says. One of his oddest and most entertaining books is The Unexpurgated Code (1975), a "manual of survival and manners" aimed at those who aspire to social climbing but are feeling unsteady on their feet. Short sections, with titles such as "Upon Being Excluded from Who's Who" and "Name Changing", give counsel: "The world's richest families often have the names best suited to you and, with imaginatively selected Christian names, they will not only immediately make you sound better than you look but make people think they like you."
Donleavy's working methods are idiosyncratic. He writes a passage in longhand, which then goes to his secretary, who works in a different part of the house (on some days they don't encounter one another). She types it up and returns it to him. "Then I will write around that and it goes back to her, and then I paste the pages one over the other, until the sheets get very long. I have to lay them out on the floor. I want to see where each thing is, in each draft. It can be a terrible business. Soon I'll have to move into another room."
He has lived in Ireland off and on for almost 60 years, yet he feels that the people, described in The History of The Ginger Man as a "small inbred population of highly active begrudgers", have not been kind to him. As a result, he says, he can't read the Irish papers. "I think that the policy in Ireland has been almost unbelievable. I know people who have arrived in Dublin from America, and gone into a pub, and they'd hear, 'Oh Donleavy, he died last year'. There was a lot of this." Cronin feels he is mistaken in believing the Irish have it in for him. "He's always been quite well received. It's just that he doesn't see that many people nowadays." According to Logue, "he doesn't really cultivate human relationships. And he's rather proud of it. But I think geniality has grown on him over the years." Donleavy is apt to frown at his own reclusive habits. "I think it's a bad thing. Sometimes I don't go beyond those gates for two weeks at a time. You only get by having people to visit. Touch wood, I seem to have kept a lot of my old girlfriends, and they tend to come on visits, so I'm not always here alone. But it isn't good."
Recently, following the success of the film Young Adam, adapted from the novel by Alexander Trocchi, he has found himself obliged to defend his publishing property. Young Adam is an Olympia original, published under the pseudonym "Frances Lengel" in 1954. (Trocchi was also the author of some of the pornographic potboilers advertised at the back of The Ginger Man.) Donleavy contends that the book's copyright rests with him. "It's a situation I could never have foreseen, that I might have to go to court to protect the works of the Olympia Press."
Meanwhile, there is the farm to be worked, the Ginger Man industry to oversee - an entrepreneur in the US has named a string of pubs after it, for which privilege he pays a royalty - and his good physical condition to keep up. In the living room, above the peat fire, pride of place is given to a photograph of Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1938. The referee, visible in the picture, was Arthur Donovan, Sugar Ray Robinson's boxing coach. Donovan also coached Donleavy, so that the novelist and the legendary middleweight have in common "a left hook so fast you can't even see it". Donleavy gets up out of his fireside chair to demonstrate. "My right is just as fast, and all combined I can do seven-and-a-half full punches in one second. I'm faster now, probably, than in my earlier days."
Born: April 23 1926, New York.
Educated: Various schools in US; 1946-49 Trinity College, Dublin.
Married: 1946 Valerie Heron, (two children '51 Philip, '55 Karen) '69 divorced; '70 Mary Wilson Price; (two children '79 Rebecca and Rory) '89 divorced.
Some novels: 1955 The Ginger Man; '63 A Singular Man; '69 The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B; '71 The Onion Eaters; '80 Schultz; '94 The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms; '98 Wrong Information is Being Given Out at Princeton.
Other writing: 1960 Fairy Tales of New York (play); '64 Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule (short stories); '84 De Alfonce Tennis: The superlative game of eccentric champions ("a legend"); '89 A Singular Country; '94 The History of the Ginger Man.
Some awards: 1961 Evening Standard Drama Critics' Award.
To purchase books by J.P. Donleavy, go to the Buyers' Guide.