Wednesday, October 10, 2018

J. P. Donleavy Unbuttoned: A Review of The Ginger Man Letters

A lightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 
7 October 2018

J. P. Donleavy is a bit of a conundrum. A failed painter who wrote the most commercially successful novel to emerge from Ireland. An Irish-American who despised Ireland yet ended up living the bulk of his life in County Westmeath. A native of Brooklyn who spoke with a faux ascendancy accent and affected the dress of an English country gentleman. A writer whose initially energetic sub-Joycean style slackened into mannered tedium (with those silly alliterative titles). Yet we can forgive him all his foibles and later failings for the gift of The Ginger Man - novel that came along in the mid-1950s when fun was forbidden and the Church ruled the land. It plunged us headlong into a world where responsibilities are discarded in the headlong pursuit of drink, women, and the occasional sheep’s head for sustenance. It championed freedom of expression in a censorious era and it made us laugh. The sexual frankness was also a boon back in those times – especially to teenage boys. Today the most shocking element in the book is the verbal and physical abuse its protagonist Sebastian Dangerfield visits on his long-suffering wife Marion.

Bill Dunn, an expert on lighthouses, and a self-declared “longtime fan of J. P. Donleavy” has put together a selection of the correspondence between Donleavy and two of the main sources for The Ginger Man: Gainor Crist and A. K. Donoghue. Their letters date from 1948 to 2006 so the bulk of them are between Donoghue and Donleavy as Crist died in 1964 (aged 42 in alcohol-related circumstances). All three were Americans abroad - at Trinity courtesy of the G.I. Bill. Donleavy described Donoghue as “the introducer of blatant honesty to Ireland” and the ginger-haired Crist was admired for his charm, his heroic drinking and his success with the ladies. He was immortalized as Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man and elements of Donoghue are evident in the character of Kenneth O’Keefe. While Donleavy thrived on their fictional personae, his subjects struggled in real life. Donoghue eked out an existence in a series of dead-end jobs back in the USA (camp counsellor, mortician, and gambling consultant amongst them). He also had a disastrous sex life which he described with relish to the eager Donleavy. Crist was also employed erratically and his oft-touted charms seem to have been more apparent to those who met him in the flesh than is evident from his fictitious persona or these letters. He lived a life of alcoholic fecklessness. When around, he was apparently a loving father according to an affectionate and forgiving appendix written by his daughter Mariana. Donleavy’s relationships with both of his correspondents ended badly – ostensibly about bread in one case and cheese in the other.

 Despite his Irish-American parentage, Donleavy was no great lover of Ireland. He  came to Trinity because he could not get into an American college and he returned to Ireland from England to avail of the tax advantages we offered to writers. He expressed his contempt frequently: In his 1994 autobiography (“agricultural, paupered, myth drugged greenery that is Ireland”); In his 1992 documentary J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland (“a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic”) and in these letters (“I hate the thought of the place and I don’t know why I’m going”). Even when he settled on his 180 acres in Levington Hall in County Westmeath he affected disdain for his surroundings: ” I read the Daily Telegraph and I may as well be living in Timbuktu for all the number of times I go outside those gates” he told one visitor.

Those expecting literary discussions in these letters will be disappointed. This is not Nabokov and Edmond Wilson. The concerns are more quotidian: jobs, accommodation, travel arrangements and money.  A certain puerile, school-boyish tone persists even when the writers are in their forties and older. “No woman is going to let me slip my 6 incher into her sacred port hole” complains Donoghue. Patterns soon emerge about their individual reasons for maintaining the correspondence. Crist was chronically short of money and always looking for another adventure: “Would you please send me $25 – I am requesting non-material but material aid as well”.  Donoghue wrote mostly, it seems, to entertain Donleavy by recounting details of his latest dead-end job and his latest sexual failures – of which there were many. “I seem to inspire in women a desire to marry or fuck someone else.”

Donleavy, even when he became very successful, was keen to maintain this connection and would chide Donoghue when there were long gaps between letters. He would repeatedly request more details about his work, his latest amatory mishap, or the part of the USA in which he currently resided (“Did you know the Mormons never gave up polygamy formally”). A Fairy Tale of New York involves a character working in a funeral home, one of Donoghue’s many jobs. Donoghue was a faithful dog to the last. Years after Donleavy kicked him out of his Westmeath gate lodge and stopped replying to his letters, Donoghue wrote from his grace and favor retirement home in Donegal giving Donleavy “full permission to write anything he feels like writing about me, positive, negative and otherwise.”

Donleavy was in some ways an accidental writer. His first love was art and he had a number of exhibitions in Dublin before The Ginger Man was published. After his writing career had petered out he continued to paint and was showing at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin as recently as 2017.  When he tried to show outside Ireland’s stagnant art market in the early 50s he was rebuffed. The Redfern Gallery in London spurned his advances and he then determined that he would show the world: “I would write a book that no one could stop and would make my name known in every nook and cranny all over the world”.

Dunn the lighthouseman has, through these letters, shone a revealing light on the lives and characters of Donleavy, Crist and Donoghue. Donleavy’s rich and varied life (travel, famous friends, fine wines) sits in sharp contrast to the struggles and sad declines of the other two: The restless and needy Crist killing himself with drink and the permanently rueful Donoghue, making a virtue of his parlous career and ruinous love life. What’s revealed about them is far from the bohemian glamour and romantic myths of that storied time in Dublin literary history. This is the base metal mundanity that Donleavy managed to spin into gold.

Lilliput Press
PP: 396
RRP: €25

John P. O’Sullivan
October 2018

Monday, October 01, 2018

O’Sullivan Contra Carey

Dear Sir,

John Carey may be an authority on the metaphysical poets but he clearly knows little about philosophy or the significance of Nietzsche. In his review of Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (Sunday Times September 23) he describes a philosopher who influenced Freud, Camus and Sartre amongst many others as “scarcely a thinker at all”. In successive paragraphs he asserts that “what he had was a talent for aphorisms” and “he expressed himself mostly in aphorisms”. Has he never read The Birth of Tragedy, On the Genealogy of Morals, or Thus Spoke Zarathustra? There is little attempt to engage with Nietzsche’s original ideas such as: the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the relativity of morals, eternal recurrence, and the will to power. Instead we are told Nietzsche was short and stout, never had sex, was misogynistic, was mad, danced naked, and had a sister who was presented with roses by Hitler. It was a trite and superficial review that revealed little except Carey’s prejudices and ignorance and is unworthy of the Sunday Times.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

If Ever You Go to Lubbock

On holiday in Austin to enjoy the music scene there, I take a detour to Lubbock to visit the Buddy Holly Center and his grave. Lubbock is deep in the heart of West Texas so it’s a flight rather than a drive from Austin. The cotton has just been harvested in the endless flat landscape that surrounds the town so we fly over a patchwork quilt of bare brown and green fields, many curiously circular. Lubbock is an agricultural city with a thriving Texas Tech campus. It’s very spread out and gives an impression of emptiness - there seems to be almost no street life. In the Depot area we walked around a series of  empty streets (including Buddy Holly Avenue) and encountered nobody except a postal delivery woman and a crazy lady collecting rubbish. An occasional car passed on the long wide streets. It’s as if a smart bomb had been detonated killing all the inhabitants but leaving the buildings intact.

The Buddy Holly Center is a neat one story building that once functioned as a railway depot. It’s very well organized and the creators have managed well to depict a life that didn’t last long enough to leave much tangible evidence, apart from the music. The most poignant exhibit is no doubt his trademark black-framed glasses that survived that stupid plane crash – where an inexperienced pilot flew them into the ground during a snow storm. There’s also his motor-bike bought after the first serious money arrived with the success of That’ll Be the Day. Other poignant exhibits included some early drawings and a couple of clay figurines he made for Echo McGuire, a high-school girl-friend. There are plenty of guitars also and numerous photographs. Well worth a visit. We took an Uber out to Lubbock cemetery to visit the grave. The graves are afforded as much space as the houses in this spread-out city. His grave is marked by a small rectangular metal plate with his name spelt correctly. He was born Holley but an early Decca contract got it wrong and so he stuck with Holly as his stage name. His father and mother are buried alongside. Both lived into their 80s – suggesting that longevity would have been part of his heritage.

On our walk that morning we passed an interesting looking Spanish bistro – La Diosa Cellars. Sick of the barbecues, burgers and fried chicken on offer elsewhere we made a reservation. It turned out to be a little gem. It was very creatively decorated declared with lots of decent art (lots of Frieda Kahlo portraits) and vintage furniture. The menu embraced a huge variety of Tapas (wild-mushroom risotto, l’escargot etc.) and best of all it bottled its own wines – so we got our first reasonably-priced bottle since we came to Texas (€19 for an earthy Rioja). I thought there was only one reason to go to Lubbock – now I know there are two.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Not Cool Chill

I’m off to the USA this week and knowing the financial consequences of needing medical treatment while I’m there I decided to take out some travel insurance. So I head to the Chill Insurance web site where there seems to be some reasonable deals. I start filling out my personal details and get an error message for using an apostrophe in my surname (O’Sullivan). It can only be entered without this character. Considering it’s operating in Ireland you’d imagine they’d make allowances for the very high number of apostrophied people living here. Bad form chaps I think and move on. Then I get to the payment section where I’m asked to enter my name as it appears on my credit card. My name on my credit card includes an apostrophe so naturally I include it. This too is rejected but works fine when I omit the apostrophe. Thus entering my name NOT as it appears my credit card. Chill are guilty of mortal sins against Usability and Localisation and someone should give its IT manger a good kick up the arse. Thus spake Zarathustra.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Rancid Ruminations - August 2018

The Presidential Election

What a waste. It’s clear the incumbent will get back in but we’ll have to endure months of guff in the meantime. A blessing for the media who will no doubt attempt to generate spurious drama from the foregone conclusion. I’ll certainly vote for Higgins again. It’s nice to have a literate, poetry-loving man representing us. He may be slightly effete and occasionally lapse into preciousness but he’s basically sound. Much will be made by his opponents of his praise for Castro on the latter’s death, but that’s a positive for me. Those who consider Castro a despot should bear in mind the almost universal sorrow in Cuba when he died. Batista’s followers and descendants may have rejoiced in Miami but genuine Cubans mourned. Some people value independence.

Pope Bashing

Now God knows I’m not a practicing Catholic and have no time for the whole “vast moth-eaten musical brocade of religion” (incidentally that phrase is from Philip Larkin’s Aubade – perhaps the most terrifying poem in the English language). However, the attacks on Pope Francis by the right-on brigade in the media seemed to miss the point. Of course the Church has behaved appallingly and protected criminals and perverts from the consequences of their actions. And of course it should be hounded for this. But an equally  important issue is how and why successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments handed over responsibility for health, education and unmarried mothers to an organization staffed by reluctant celibates with a belief in a glorious afterlife for those who suffer in this life. It was never going to end well. From Cosgrave and De Valera onwards the political establishment have been complicit in this and only now are we slowly beginning to disentangle ourselves.

The Summer’s Gone.

Is there anything more depressing than those back to school ads – that usually start in early August. They send an atavistic shudder through me. And yesterday to cement that dread I hear an ASTI apparatchik on the radio banging on about parity in pay for teachers. This is the union that not too long ago sold new hires down the Swanee so they could hang on to their own entitlements. No mention of parity back then. Once in a lifetime it would be nice to see teachers threatening a strike about something other than pay or an initiative that threatens their light work-load and comfortable routines.