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The Natural Science of a Singular Gentleman

J.P. Donleavy interviewed by David Gavan.

jpdonleavy
[Image: Sally Soames/Time Warner Books]

Down the years, James Patrick Michael Donleavy has been portrayed in the Anglo-Irish press as a gentleman recluse with a roistering life of hard drinking, fisticuffs and harlotry behind him. It makes nice copy: the former ‘hell-raiser’ sequestered in his Georgian mansion in Westmeath, Ireland. James Joyce wrote about this country pile, Levington Park, in Stephen Hero having, apparently, stayed there as a boy while his father was working in nearby Mullingar. Yet while the ‘literary recluse’ shtick seems overstated, it may contain a germ of truth. After all, Donleavy has admitted himself that he rarely leaves his home, and once said that, of all his protagonists, the one he most resembles is the sadly humane George Smith from his paranoiac second novel, A Singular Man. Smith – a man of independent means – finds our indifference to our fellow beings nullifyingly sad. Protecting himself behind a two inch steel, mahogany-look front door, he makes regular sorties into the world in search of “good fellowship”. What he finds is casual froideur and brutal stupidity.

In Anthony Cronin’s superb memoir of the ‘Rare Oul Times’ among Dublin’s literati, Dead As Doornails, it is recalled that Donleavy showed hermit-like tendencies even in the forties. Certainly, there is a sense in the writer’s picaresque debut novel, The Ginger Man, of its hero, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, being besieged by an uncivilised world. (Young Dangerfield runs amok through late forties’ Dublin substituting sex and liquor for the love and meaning he fails to find). But then, it is never wise to over-identify a novelist with his characters. Especially as it is well known that the Sebastian Dangerfield character was partly inspired by the author’s heroically caring and courteous friend, Gainor Stephen Crist, a “pagan sensualist” whose “do-no-evil” stance still renders him a saint in Donleavy’s eyes. Crist is said to have died in 1964, although Donleavy is not convinced of this. At any rate, it is clear in Donleavy’s fictional and autobiographical work that good manners are paramount. Sadly, my progress to Levington Park involves three duff steers from Westmeath locals. These send me miles out of my way, and see me stomping up Donleavy’s muddy drive ten minutes late for our appointment. I rap on the front door wondering how my tardiness will be rewarded. After all, Donleavy is a man who has written the impishly amusing guide to social etiquette, The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners. Happily, his secretary, Virginia, welcomes me warmly and assures me that I am not remotely late. I am piloted into a commodious hallway, and we then turn right into a large, yet cosy kitchen.

I notice a range stove in the room’s far right side, and across the way from that there is a large round table positioned in front of a crackling turf fire. The turf tints the air with a homely scent of whiskey. J.P. Donleavy – Mike to his friends – sits before this fire with a hearty smile on his face. Instead of the tweeds and plus-fours many people associate with the author, he is dressed casually in a long leather jacket and dark, well-worn trousers. He looks very much the elegantly informal artist. After proffering biscuits to complement my coffee, Donleavy is soon enthusing about his work in progress, The Dog on the Seventeenth Floor – a book that delighted his fan and friend, the actor Johnny Depp, when he read it in the mid-nineties. Donleavy even reads me an excerpt from the manuscript of this still gestating work, the third in a trilogy of New York City novels. It sounds promisingly visceral, and in a similar vein to his last offering, the heart-rendingly droll, Wrong Information is Being Given Out in Princeton.

“When I met him in New York, Mr Depp asked me what I was working on, so I told him about my story that describes a dog jumping out of a seventeenth floor window. At the time, we were standing by a seventeenth floor window,” laughs Donleavy. His mellifluous Anglo-American tones and quiet charisma suggest a time-ripened thespian. This impression is reinforced later on by his beautiful living room, which calls to mind the stage set of a Terence Rattigan play. Of which, more later. Having finished his brief reading, Donleavy scans me with a benignly searching gaze: “Do you know New York yourself, at all?”, he asks, sounding like he is interested in my answer. When I say no, he responds in fine literary style. “Oh really? Goodness. You ought to just get someone to send you over there so that you can present a new picture of something that you perhaps find out about yourself by exposing yourself to the city. And then you have got the setting and subject for a story, you see. I wonder has murder, for instance, slowed down in New York or not? Or where are the Mafia, and what are they doing these days?”

Wherever Donleavy chooses to set his stories, his protagonists always seem to be existentially adrift. They have a talent for feeling like tourists in their home towns. There is a genuine sense of these stories being penned by an alienated observer. This is strikingly the case in the author’s magisterial and mordantly funny novel, A Fairy Tale of New York, whose main character, Cornelius Christian, would get along famously with J.D. Salinger’s prep school Hamlet, Holden Caulfield. Having studied in Ireland, Cornelius sails home to New York accompanied by his wife’s coffined corpse. He is then given impromptu employment in the very funeral parlour which buries her so that he may be able to foot the bill. And so begins a state-of-the-human-psyche novel of delightful humour and oceanic depth. I wonder where Donleavy’s strong sense of remove stems from.

“I think, as a writer, you approach the world from an observational perspective, and this is your position from beginning to end. Then you take what you see and shape it into literature. You are almost like a scientist in that regard: taking words and using them for their sound, and using all kinds of technical variations. Of course, every writer has his or her own style. Now, in my own case, I always find that the use of short sentences and a direct approach is a beneficial way to work. Sometimes, when I think occasion demands, the prose would get more flowery.”

Donleavy believes that most people think in the short, telegraphic sentences he uses in his work. The interchangeable nature of the first and third person, along with his habit of allowing his characters to drift into reverie during tumultuous scenes, are two more Donleavy tropes. The writing style is a surging current-of-consciousness, with strategically-placed white water interludes. I ask him what would be uppermost in his mind as he writes fiction.

“On one side, you are thinking of the immediacy of the words in a technical sense, and on the other you are making the story take flight with the descriptive imagery. And I remember looking seriously at the most efficient way one could use the language when those books were written. There was a very purposeful attempt to keep the prose sharp. I remember Brendan Behan [who famously let himself into Donleavy’s house at Kilcoole and “corrected” the original manuscript of The Ginger Man] being very helpful in this respect. He was the first person to read my manuscript, and he came up with a couple of technical insights like that. He noticed that my style was different to anything he had ever confronted. Brendan had been in prison and read prodigiously during that time. So he discussed these stylistic things in detail.”

I’m curious about Donleavy’s earlier scientific simile. Aptly enough, he studied bacteriology and zoology at Dublin’s Trinity College (1946-49). However, this writer’s waxing empirical may surprise readers who regard Donleavy’s work as an ungovernable force of nature. So perhaps there was a sense, during his carousing years in Dublin, of undertaking scientific field work; of observing his milieu through a microscope as if they were cultures on a collection of petri dishes?

“Yes. But I also realised that material was not a thing you searched for: you had to literally let events occur and drift into focus. Naturally. So you would never go around looking for literary opportunities. Things would just come to you slowly and you would allow your imagination to do the rest. Take words, take images and embellish them so they would float away and find their natural storyline. So, yes, a lot of what you find in, say, The Onion Eaters [Donleavy’s oneiric, gothic extravaganza] came from my life; the people I encountered in Dublin.”

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 10th, 2012.