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The Natural Science of a Singular Gentleman

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Given that his family were Irish Catholics, was he conscious as he wrote The Ginger Man (which was banned in the Republic of Ireland and the United States upon publication), that it would grieve them – or sully their reputation – if he wrote something perceived as disreputable or risqué? “Before the publication of The Ginger Man I felt that my family would have to disown me, which I was prepared for. I consciously made that choice. They were Catholics. My mother had a position: my father died years before this, so he would have been clear of the scandal. But she had to worry that someone may have read a book of mine that they considered ‘dirty’. But, as my name became more acceptable, and there was favourable publicity, I became someone you could talk about – or even admit you were related to! I remember that my mother was pretty brave in this respect. She would be someone with a bit of courage in the face of social conventions.

“That said – and this may seem to undermine what I have just said – I remember Gainor Crist coming to stay with me and my family in Woodlawn, New York City. I passed the telephone stand one day and saw that he had left his calling card there. I thought: ‘Good God, I had no idea that he even had such a thing’. So I said to mother: ‘Gainor’s left his calling card!’ I was expecting this to be made fun of a bit. But she said [here, Donleavy adopts an imperious Lady Bracknell voice]: ‘Of course he did!’ As if it was perfectly natural that he should do so. So I realized suddenly just how out of step with social etiquette I was.”

Donleavy has described in his autobiographical work how hard he found it to fit in when he returned to New York after his spell at Trinity College, Dublin. Did he have any feelings of social dislocation before this? “It cropped up when I was still at Fordham Preparatory School (in the Bronx), along with early signs that I may be cut out for a writer’s life. I was chucked out of the place. Expelled! But prior to this happening, I was writing themes and things and enjoying it hugely. And, when I was being kicked out of the place, there was a Jesuit master there who pleaded my case. He said to the principal: ‘You are throwing out of this school the only boy who is likely to be a celebrated former student.’ Even so, I was expelled for being ‘a bad influence upon the student body’. I was just a schoolboy”, Donleavy recalls in pleading tones. As he mentions this, it occurs to me that the more risqué elements which crop up in this author‘s work may well represent a kicking against his repressive Catholic education. “Then I had to go to a Public – you know, where people don’t pay to go – High School where all these little social snobberies would begin to arise. When I attended this school, I was in another world where I would suddenly be referred to as preppy,” he says, clearly tickled by the word. “I found myself confronting this whole new social situation. I had never had anything like my supposedly being preppy held against me before, you see.”

It is tempting to see Donleavy’s watchfulness and splendid alienation as springing from such uprooting experiences. However, he concedes to feelings of separateness from a tender age. By the time he hit Dublin in 1946 – a beneficiary of the post-war G.I. Bill – he was sensitive to comments on his beard or American accent, and those unwise enough to accost him were often trounced for their trouble. When Brendan Behan called him a ‘narrowback’ (non-work-hardened, second- generation Irish gentleman) upon their introduction in Davy Byrne‘s pub, Donleavy was hardly disarmed. He invited his fellow literary lion cub to step outside. Ultimately, the pair decided not to scrap for the delectation of drinkers who failed to follow the would-be rivals outside. Thereafter, Behan became Donleavy’s “best enemy”, but others were foolhardy enough to physically challenge the amiable yet assertive Irish New Yorker.

“Well, a lot of my trouble in Dublin came about because people would accost me and, as an American, I was very sensitive. Also, it has to be remembered that there had been a war and I had been in the US Navy, and you did not appreciate people coming up and giving you trouble. But I had such a reputation for giving a good account of myself in a fight that most people left me well enough alone. Oddly, I had a reputation which even seemed to go beyond Ireland.

“There was an incident where someone came from Germany to Dublin in order to search me out, having heard that I would end fights in about twenty seconds. So this guy turns up at Davy Byrne’s pub and said: ‘Where is this guy!’ So someone points me out and says: ‘Look! There he is, over there.’ To which the German replies: ‘What? That little guy?’ And the person who had pointed me out replies: ‘That’s what they all say!’ So the German guy loses his nerve and comes over and wants to shake my hand. Also, with my having a beard, people would immediately accost me. My position was that I just did not feel like hacking at my face every day. The question was always: ‘Why are you growing that beard?’ But I was conscious that the punches I learned as a boxer could rupture the entrails. You might have a dead man on your hands. So I was always having to extricate myself from these confrontations diplomatically.” While telling me this, Donleavy bobs up from his chair and demonstrates some harrying left hooks, his hands making whooshing sounds as they part the air.

At one point in The Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield mentions gazing up at the Dublin hills and wishing he could be up there. Safely enclosed by a brick wall. Also, in A Singular Man, George Smith has the aforementioned mahogany-disguised two inch steel front door to keep the world at bay. He even tries to chivvy his self-esteem along by playing an applause machine to himself. There seems to be a desire to escape a discourteous and even violent world in both your fictional and autobiographical work.

“Yes, that is true. This is still a thing I have. I realise, living here, that the option of having distractions is not open to me. So when people such as yourself come to interview me, it’s a welcome and beneficial stimulus. I view it more as a social opportunity than an interview.” Obviously, though, Donleavy feels that the novelist’s skills which he has developed over the years are an inexhaustible resource. It is obviously not a case of his constantly doing ‘field work’ to stock up on life material. So, if at this point in his life, he is less apt to visit Dublin, London or New York, he is quite happy to use his present circumstances as material.

“Yes, the reduction of stimulus would, technically, affect you somewhat but, generally, the exercise of your working methods is a muscle that never atrophies. So, as a writer, you have to exercise the power of invention and realise it’s a form of training. Like an athlete running around a track. So I’m aware, as I’m talking with you about various subjects, that we are covering a lot of areas I would not usually touch upon. My trouble, when people come here to interview me, is that they always end up being far more interviewed than I am. Some end up complaining: ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be interviewing you!’” Here Donleavy duly asks me a couple of personal questions as if to demonstrate the point, but his manner is hardly intrusive. Still, like many a writer, Donleavy watches those he encounters with laser beam intensity, sometimes even repeating one’s phrases to himself in a low voice.

One encounter that proved fateful in Donleavy’s life was the one that resulted from Kenneth Tynan being much taken with The Ginger Man’s buoyant dialogue. Donleavy has described, in J.P. Donleavy’s Ireland in All of Her Sins and Some of Her Graces, meeting the supremely gifted theatre critic in London. “Oh yes, he commissioned me to write a screenplay – The Rich Goat – and he sent it on to…I think it was Orson Welles who got a hold of it in the end”, Donleavy laughs incredulously at the memory. “Welles said it was the greatest film script that he had ever read. Extraordinary…” Freakishly, the screenplay was never turned into a film, but one hopes it will be excavated from Donleavy’s archive for a discerning film director someday soon. I ask what kind of impression Kenneth Tynan made upon him.

“He was dapper, very charming and had a wonderful air about him. Everything had to be beautiful and marvellous in his environment. He could get very nervous, I recall, and was a great smoker. And very worried about life because he thought that things would go wrong for him. A great number of people would congregate around him constantly. He was very gracious in terms of putting opportunities in a lot of people’s way. In fact, he was instrumental in getting me out of that house in Fulham where I was living. You see, I was given quite generous payments by Ealing Films [for The Rich Goat screenplay]. This was a tremendously welcome situation because I had a couple of children by then, so one had to be a bit more cautious about the financial future. So, because of Kenneth Tynan’s commission, I had the chance to find better accommodation. Tynan was a central energy focus for a lot of people in the arts, and he would sweep us all along with him.”

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