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The Natural Science of a Singular Gentleman

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It strikes me that, while he says that his books are more akin to “high flying journalism” than political manifestos, early reviewers of The Ginger Man sometimes lumped him in with the ‘kitchen sink’, ‘angry young man’ writers like John Osborne. This seems strange, given that Donleavy’s anarchic anti-hero, Sebastian Dangerfield, is more clueless conformist than rebel. Dangerfield fails to fit in spectacularly, even while he chases everything that society says a young man should pursue. “No, indeed. It was not appropriate that I should be dragged into that Angry Young Man thing because – just as you notice – it had nothing much to do with my work.” Ironically though, Donleavy attributes the publication of The Ginger Man in New York – a city that was proving immune to the novel’s charms – to a John Osborne interview in the New York Times. The writer of Look Back in Anger made the point that Donleavy was being seen as part of the English Angry Young Man phenomenon when he was actually American.

Even so, Donleavy’s decision to write a novel was sparked by a fist-shaking fury. A committed painter before he began writing, he resolved to write an “unstoppably” great book after a London gallery owner told him that his undoubtedly “original” art work would only have a chance of being seen if he were already famous. These pictorial tendencies mean that Donleavy is unusually concerned with how the written word looks on the page. I ask him about the haiku-like, miniature poems that end many of his early chapters. These look striking and lend the words a certain gravitas. They surely derive from his visual sensibilities. “Yes, I think so. I would exercise anything I could find that was conducive to clarity or emphasis. If there was a practical, functional tool to help the work along, I always felt that one should use it.”

What about J.P. Donleavy and academia? Some critics have applied a Freudian or Jungian analysis to his work. Is this a form of criticism he finds enlightening, given his scientific approach to his work? “Well, I must admit that sometimes critics make judgements that don’t have anything much to do with my initial instincts at all. I would be totally unaware of the psychological connections they would be making. I work instinctively. Events are located entirely within a self-contained world, and they would not have any colouration from the outside world at all.” Bearing in mind Donleavy’s earlier scientific simile, his use of the word “instinctively” is of interest here. Certainly, all novelists alchemise their lived experience and unconscious drives into art: what really impresses about Donleavy is how unforced and natural his writing feels – even after the application of science.

Do his reservations about applying psychological theories to his work arise from his seeing it as an inexact science, offering insights that cannot be tested empirically? “Partly that, but it’s mostly because I don’t have any real interest in Freudian or Jungian pursuits. I just know that the practitioners live and eat well and have their little gatherings”, he observes wryly. “But I am much more interested in how the human brain can accumulate knowledge, especially as I speak with you about the seventeen books I have written and recall the scenes. Because I have a scientific background, I am fascinated by the electrical impulses that transport thoughts and memories through the brain. I’m surprised at my eagerness to understand any new developments in astronomy that crop up, knowing that – even now – there are so many unknowns. We are increasingly aware of these scientific unknowns. But then you think: ‘Hey! Where does it all stop?’ What does space actually mean, and does it have a diameter?’ You are then confronted with the apparent limitlessness of space. If, for instance, I point to the sky over there and ask: ‘How far does this go?’, that’s a problem that no scientist has been able to get anywhere with. Where does space stop? As far as we know, it never stops.”

All this scrutineering, and Donleavy’s drive to anatomise rather than criticise, makes the accusations of sexism and anti-semitism that greeted The Ginger Man and, subsequently, his endearingly madcap 1979 novel, Schultz, seem rather dull. Schultz introduced readers to the riotously randy Jewish theatre impresario, Sigmund Franz ‘Isadorable’ Schultz. The novel also gently sends up members of the English aristocracy, but few readers accuse Donleavy of putting such people down. Moreover, Donleavy readily agrees that any extreme views a character may hold are counterbalanced by the differing views of others. He is soundly ecumenical in his mockery. “You have to leave everything open for examination as far as possible. Each new book has its own self-contained environment.”

‘Self- contained environment’ seems apt, given this writer’s ability to teleport his readers into alternative worlds. Indeed, these are literary jaunts that repay repeated visits, and the critic who suggested that Donleavy is “saying something fundamental about the human condition” seems eminently on the money. Yet other critics have mentioned Donleavy’s tendency to recycle certain riffs and scenes. For instance, Leila: Further in the Life and Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, the second book in the Darcy Dancer trilogy, has sometimes been described as a rewrite of The Onion Eaters. However, it seems fairer to compare Donleavy’s oeuvre to that of a great blues songwriter: some of the tunes may echo earlier triumphs, but they are always reinterpreted in intriguing new ways. In any event, the author gave the begrudgers plenty to think about when he published the novella The Lady who Liked Clean Rest Rooms in 1995. This Alpine fresh offering was perhaps the writer’s best work since the Dostoevskian novella The Saddest Summer of Samuel S. Both books are succinct treatments of human isolation: from a male and female viewpoint, respectively.

The Saddest Summer of Samuel S is a chastening depiction of the interwoven strands of love, social ambition and lust. The novella – which briskly portrays an existential skirmish between Samuel S and a young woman called Abigail (who may or may not represent Samuel’s Jungian anima, or inner female) is a scarily archetypal stand-off between male and female combatants. While some readers may feel that Samuel’s briefly showcased ability to fart in B Flat strikes a discordantly puerile note, there is a strong case for arguing that such Donleavian moments cunningly undercut the thread of despair which runs through this writer‘s work like the watermark on an Irish five Euro note. Certainly, it is difficult to disagree with the reader who told me that J.P. Donleavy “writes the saddest and funniest books in the world.”

In The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms, it is worth noting how Donleavy’s compassionate treatment of Jocelyn Guenevere Marchantiere Jones – a woman who only appreciates her friends’ spiritual bankruptcy when her personal finances crash – makes those old accusations of sexism seem quaintly redundant. But does Donleavy feel the need to keep proving himself, to add more work to his exhaustive oeuvre?

“I think authors should be careful about seeing the novels they have already written as constituting some massive ongoing work to which they add every day. I think you have to write in a natural way. That Dog That Fell manuscript over there has been lying around for two or three years and I only returned to it recently. Now I’m toying with the idea of actively working on it again. But looking back on all my work from today’s perspective, I think it would be unwise to start out with the aim of amassing a huge compendium of work. It would be hard to write unselfconsciously if you were thinking about your reputation.”

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