The Natural Science of a Singular Gentleman
Your life and work has always been populated with beneficent male companions like Kenneth O’Keefe (who resembles Donleavy’s Trinity pal, Arthur Kenneth O’Donoghue) in The Ginger Man; Vine, the solicitous undertaker, in A Fairy Tale of New York; or Beefy from The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. Where, for instance, did the beguiling character of Balthazar’s pal, Beefy, spring from? “He was a combination of people. Mostly, it was someone from Trinity that I knew well called Jean Marc Heidsieck (of the Heidsieck champagne clan). When I was painting there, he used to ask if I minded if he came over to my rooms there, and all he would like to do was sit with me while I painted. He said: ‘I won’t speak or interfere: I shall just sit.’ And, indeed, he used to do just that. It was quite fascinating. He was always invited everywhere in Dublin because of his family connections in France.”
Was this friend the person you saw from a cab one day in Knightsbridge whom you were unable to hail due to your being stuck in traffic? A friend you had not seen since your Trinity days? “Yes, that was him. It was wonderful for me to have someone like him at Trinity with whom I had something in common, so we could talk and explore ideas together. He would invite me to big champagne sales parties because of his family connections. They threw big parties in Paris and I would always be invited on these occasions. Three days at the Ritz – all expenses paid. I remember he came here to Levington Park once. So, yes, when I spotted this wonderful, vivid character in Knightsbridge, I suddenly had the idea for The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. I put down the first words of that book very shortly after that.”
Talk of Paris leads naturally to J.P. Donleavy’s titanic legal tussle with the Paris-based Olympia Press director, Maurice Girodias, who agreed to publish Donleavy’s much-rejected (forty-something times, if we’re counting) manuscript of The Ginger Man in 1955. Initially, the novel was christened, Sebastian Dangerfield, but Donleavy lit upon The Ginger Man title when Girodias expressed the desire for something sparkier.
Sadly, Girodias failed to inform Donleavy that his mighty novel would be published under Olympia’s lubricious imprint, the Traveller’s Companion Series (Olympia’s main roster included writers such as Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett). Donleavy’s relief at finding a publisher who was undaunted by The Ginger Man’s risqué elements, soon flipped to fury upon realizing what had been done to his work. He then entered into a Wagnerian legal wrangle with Girodias that reached a crescendo when Olympia Press was put up for auction and a livid Girodias was outbid by Donleavy’s then-wife, Mary, and former secretary, Phyliss McArdle. The scene, which is winningly described in The History of the Ginger Man, resembles a screenplay for an edition of Rumpole of the Bailey penned by Flann O’Brien: it is both legalistic and lysergically funny. Girodias subsequently described Donleavy as a ‘legal wizard.’
“I would go over to Paris to see my lawyers and I had a secretary at the time who would travel with me. I remember her sitting on the side of an armchair at one of my lawyer’s places in the 16th district. There are about sixteen people there, and my secretary says: ‘Mr Donleavy, I don’t know if I should mention this. But I have just been thinking: All of the people that you can see in this room right now- well, you employ every one of them.’
“So, among all these lawyers in Paris, there was a titanic battle between two companies going on: the one called The Little Someone Corporation (which was Donleavy‘s) and another called the Olympia Press. They were clashing head on in this high court battle in Paris. Next thing I know, I receive a letter from my lawyer which read: ‘Mr Donleavy, we know you are busy, but we thought we should acquaint you with the following facts as soon as possible. There is a situation where The Little Someone Corporation is suing the Olympia Press, and we want to take this opportunity to point out to you that it so happens that you are the owner of both of these companies.’ “…And they are suing the hell out of each other”, splutters a delighted Donleavy. “And neither side will give an inch!”
Would this be where the paranoiac, legalistic feel to your second novel, A Singular Man derives? All those obliquely officious letters your protagonist receives from an unknown party. “Yes indeed, it does come directly out of all that because my life was nothing but litigation. Literally. By now, The Ginger Man had become a sought after text, in terms of people wishing to secure rights on it. So my nerves had to re-adjust quite substantially after I was told I was, effectively, suing myself!” It seems typical of Donleavy’s pragmatic personality that he should plough such bizarre life events into his drolly minatory second novel.
Shifting on to more immediate matters, I ask Donleavy about his manuscripts and letters (which include letters from Robert Redford – “Dear Mike, Am I famous enough yet?” – and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and the difficulties associated with collating and storing them. “They are all in the other side of the house in my study: there‘s a mass of things. I know this American chap, Bill Dunn, who has become a friend, and he has done a lot of work as an archivist to put things in order. It’s wonderful because he loves the books. In fact, we shall be having him over to visit soon. But sometimes I go into that room and I put my hand up to my head in despair. Let me just show you…”
Donleavy and myself walking through Levington Park’s spacious, picture-strewn corridor, eventually taking a right into his airily bohemian study. The room is decorated with a bust of J.P. Donleavy; and a portrait of the same subject gazes quizzically from the opposite side of the room. The wall behind the desk supports a full bookcase, on which I notice multiple copies of The Unexpurgated Code. The desk plays host to a copy of Kenneth Tynan’s peerless collection of essays, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, and a photograph of a lambent Susannah York starring in the 1964 stage production of A Singular Man with Ronald Fraser. There are various framed play bills of Donleavy’s theatrical adaptions on the wall facing the desk.
Meanwhile, the room is dominated by the original manuscripts of the author’s novels, which are piled neatly on the floor like a Rachel Whiteread structure. It feels strange to stand alongside the hardcopy versions of this superb writer’s imaginative excursions. It is also sobering to think that this work will be read long after its temporary repository has fallen back into the Irish landscape. Donleavy stands among his lifetime’s work grinning sheepishly at the way it has colonised his study. He resembles a compulsive hoarder of newspapers guiltily revealing his collection. Next I am shown the aforementioned ‘Rattigan stage set’ living room. With its vintage leather sofa and chairs, it would be a perfect setting for a rather genteel drama. At the same time, the room is redolent of conviviality, and seems to reverb with the echoes of past soirees. Its focal point is an edibly attractive fossilised Kilkenny marble fireplace. The pale abstract pattern on a dark background looks like a design dreamt up by a master chocolatier. Or a work by the Kilkenny-based sculptor, Alan Counihan. It often captivates guests, and it will be remarked upon hundreds of years from today. There is also an imposing bust of James Joyce – complete with real glasses – surveying the room’s expanse from a grand piano. His x-ray gaze works as a powerful memento mori, and I wonder how many visitors are reminded of Joyce’s ante-room-to-oblivion story, ‘The Dead’, as they sip their chosen tipples.
J.P. Donleavy’s characters are no more insulated against the paralysing snow that Joyce portrays in this tale than anyone else. They merely run around seeking freedom, fellowship and fun before they are snowed-in up to their necks. It is not for nothing that Donleavy has described The Ginger Man as a book calculated to make people jump up from their death beds. The author offers bonhomie amid the entropy. And while we laugh at Sebastian Dangerfield‘s dipsomania and erotic opportunism, the fleeting warmth provided by characters such as Miss Frost – his longed for lodger – offer him a brief respite from numbing social convention. The same may be said for Donleavy’s readers.
On the wild
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
David Gavan was educated in London and currently lives in Co Meath, Ireland. He has written for the South London Press, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish Examiner, Time Out, Record Collector, AU magazine and The Quietus. His 2010 interview with David Mitchell for 3:AM can be read here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 10th, 2012.