Don’t panic!

Fin­tan O’Toole on Yu­val Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Cen­tury

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Hail to Bill Dunn! This is an ex­cel­lent job of edit­ing cor­re­spon­dence from the James Pa­trick Don­leavy ar­chive, with an in­ti­mate in­tro­duc­tion, an up­beat ap­pen­dix and as many learned foot­notes as any rea­son­able reader could de­sire, all to­gether con­sol­i­dat­ing the world­wide fame of The Gin­ger Man and prob­a­bly pro­long­ing the im­mor­tal­ity of the au­thor and some of his erst­while close friends.

Dunn, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, first in­ter­viewed Don­leavy in 1990, when he was tour­ing the United States to pub­li­cise his lat­est novel. A cor­dial re­la­tion­ship en­sued. In 2005, Dunn vis­ited Don­leavy at home in his Lev­ing­ton Park es­tate, near Mullingar, West­meath, which strangely means “the crooked mill”. While com­pil­ing the bib­li­og­ra­phy of the Don­leavy ar­chive, Dunn was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the let­ters be­tween Don­leavy, Gainor Cris and Arthur Ken­neth Donoghue. Don­leavy, the son of Ir­ish-born Amer­i­cans, was brought up in the Bronx, where he was ex­pelled from his first sec­ondary school for re­bel­lious be­hav­iour. When he moved to Ire­land he was de­ter­mined not to con­form to the cus­toms of Dublin academia. The let­ters show that Cris and Donoghue were equally de­ter­mined to as­sert their in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

All three of them had served in the sec­ond World War, Don­leavy and Cris in the US navy, Donoghue in the US army, so were fi­nanced by the GI Bill im­me­di­ately af­ter the war, when they met as stu­dents at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin. Free from ser­vice dis­ci­pline and in­de­pen­dent of their fam­i­lies, they did as lit­tle schol­arly work as they pleased and raised up­roar­i­ously cheer­ful hell in the Guin­ness-gal­vanised new rad­i­cal so­ci­ety known as “bo­hemian Dublin”.

Dunn sug­gested that a se­lec­tion of their let­ters should be pub­lished in the sin­gle vol­ume now avail­able. The project had been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally fore­seen by Don­leavy and Donoghue, who made their let­ters long and gos­sipy, in the be­lief that even­tual pub­li­ca­tion would make death seem less melan­choly. Cris some­times signed his name “SD” the ini­tials of Se­bas­tian Danger­field, the wild, anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian Gin­ger Man him­self, but soon de­parted, leav­ing his Trin­ity friends without any ex­pla­na­tion. Though he served as a model for Se­bas­tian Danger­field, his re­la­tion­ship with Don­leavy was mi­nor.

Don­leavy was al­most in­ca­pable of writ­ing lit­er­ate English, Dunn recog­nised, and Don­leavy ap­par­ently did not care. “Don­leavy’s let­ters,” Dunn writes, “re­veal his unique gram­mar or lack of gram­mar. . . He tended to use dashes in place of ques­tion marks, pe­ri­ods, com­mas and even semi­colons.” Dunn re­tained many of Don­leavy’s spellings, which were of­ten idio­syn­cratic, oc­ca­sion­ally bizarre. Many of his sen­tences were not re­ally sen­tences at all, be­ing sus­tained by present par­tici­ples without verbs in any other forms. He sim­ply did not give a damn, and his in­sou­ciance gave his prose an im­pres­sion of orig­i­nal spon­tane­ity that seemed to fizz with testos­terone, which is greatly ap­pre­ci­ated by his fans, par­tic­u­larly re­bel­lious young schol­ars. In a let­ter to Donoghue, a Har­vard clas­sics grad­u­ate, Don­leavy, who was sup­posed to be study­ing mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy, wrote: “ed­u­ca­tion haunts me – such a waste for the brain – how­ever I have al­ways put or­gasm and palate be­fore grad­u­a­tion”.

In an ar­ti­cle on “Tools and Trau­mas of the Writ­ing Trade”, Don­leavy claimed: “Writ­ing is turn­ing one’s worst mo­ments into money.” One’s best mo­ments as well, he might have added. “And money is one of the mo­tives for be­com­ing a writer. The oth­ers are leisure and money, women and money, fame and money, and some­times just money all alone by it­self.”

Po­etic, pseudo-Hiber­nian

In 1951 Don­leavy be­gan writ­ing what would be­come The Gin­ger Man, Dunn re­lates, “cen­tred on Se­bas­tian Balfe Danger­field – gin­ger hair, charm, an Angli­cised ac­cent, a taste for the black stuff, re­mark­able abil­ity to ex­tract credit from mer­chants and ex­tri­cate him­self from calami­ties”. The hero was a com­pos­ite car­i­ca­ture of Cris and the au­thor, with imag­i­na­tive em­bel­lish­ments. Writ­ten in his flam­boy­ant, in­ter­mit­tently po­etic, pseudo-Hiber­nian style, The Gin­ger Man is by far Don­leavy’s best, most durably pop­u­lar novel, af­ter which later nov­els ap­pear to be mere im­i­ta­tions.

Bren­dan Be­han, a drunken, brawl­ing but in­tu­itively in­sight­ful friend of Don­leavy’s in their early bo­hemian days, read the in­no­va­tive man­u­script and pre­dicted its global tri­umph. Af­ter 30 pub­lish­ers had re­jected it, Be­han urged Don­leavy to sub­mit it to Mau­rice Giro­dias, pro­pri­etor of the Olympia Press in Paris, who had pub­lished some out­stand­ing au­thors, in­clud­ing Beck­ett and Nabokov, un­der Olympia’s sep­a­rate Mer­lin im­print. Don­leavy was de­lighted, of course, when his novel was ac­cepted and a con­tract was signed. He was un­aware that Giro­dias was go­ing to add it to his Trav­eller’s Com­pan­ion se­ries of porno­graphic books, with ti­tles such as The Whip An­gels and Char­iot of Flesh. When Don­leavy found out, he sued for breach of con­tract, and Giro­dias counter-sued when Don­leavy found more re­spectable pub­lish­ers in Lon­don and New York.

In 20 years of lit­i­ga­tion, Don­leavy won, re­duc­ing the Paris com­pany to bank­ruptcy, and was able to buy the re­mains for the bar­gain price of $800. Un­de­ni­ably, there is ob­scen­ity in The Gin­ger Man, but it is the rel­a­tively in­no­cent ex­pres­sion of youth­ful bois­ter­ous­ness, and helped the cam­paign to over­come in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary cen­sor­ship, even­tu­ally even in Ire­land.

Dunn presents let­ters that should do a lot to win over Don­leavy’s de­trac­tors, who of­ten ac­cuse him of van­ity, snob­bery and pos­ing in Sav­ile Row tweeds as an Ir­ish coun­try gen­tle­man. Read­ing Don­leavy’s cor­re­spon­dence with Donoghue, one can con­tem­plate the con­trast of their per­son­al­i­ties. Donoghue was eru­dite with a caus­tic wit, and his lengthy pe­riod of sub­mis­sion to psy­cho­anal­y­sis in Vienna ap­par­ently did noth­ing to ease his wan­der­ings, of­ten close to des­ti­tu­tion, rang­ing from Europe to the ab­surd re­mote­ness of the Utah-Ne­vada bor­der, where he in­ef­fec­tu­ally ad­vised a casino op­er­a­tor on how to run his busi­ness. For the umpteenth time, Donoghue’s let­ters com­plained of fail­ure and de­pres­sion. Don­leavy, on the other hand, though re­garded as a shy recluse in pri­vate, was a vig­or­ous pub­lic self-pro­moter, con­tin­u­ously forc­ing his ca­reer on­ward and up­ward, as nov­el­ist, play­wright and jour­nal­is­tic so­cial com­men­ta­tor.

He kept pro­claim­ing that his diet had pro­gressed from rash­ers, eggs and tea to lob­sters and cham­pagne. To his credit, he per­sis­tently urged Donoghue to be­come a ci­ti­zen of Ire­land, when all sorts of artists were awarded ex­emp­tions from in­come tax, and where free ac­com­mo­da­tion awaited him in a Lev­ing­ton Park gate­house.

Don­leavy’s ego­cen­tric pro­fes­sional ob­ses­sions es­tranged his two wives and lost him cus­tody of his son Philip and daugh­ter Karen. When Donoghue moved in, the long-dis­tance pen pals’ close-up daily con­ver­sa­tions ir­ri­tated both of them so much that Don­leavy or­dered Donoghue’s evic­tion, but he had al­ready de­parted vol­un­tar­ily.

Don­leavy be­came so lonely in old age, call­ing him­self the “Pasha of Heartbreak House” that he paid a suc­ces­sion of beau­ti­ful young women to live with him to ar­range flow­ers, dine at his ta­ble and act as his so­cial sec­re­tary. Un­for­tu­nately, one by one, they at­tracted wealthy lo­cal men, made old Don­leavy a cuck­old and ab­sconded.

The fi­nal pages of this riv­et­ing book are mer­ci­fully bright. The Gin­ger Man was in print all over the world, in in­nu­mer­able lan­guages, in­clud­ing Braille. In 2015, Lil­liput Press pub­lished a 60th an­niver­sary edi­tion; in 2016, Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin awarded Don­leavy an hon­orary doc­tor­ate of let­ters; and now Don­leavy’s son Philip, cus­to­dian of the Don­leavy ar­chive, prom­ises that next time Hol­ly­wood pro­poses to film The Gin­ger Man, the es­tate will of­fer a deal without Don­leavy’s de­mand for to­tal ap­proval of ev­ery stage of pro­duc­tion.

JP Has re­turned To the Mad Mol­e­cule. The Gin­ger Man Lives on

‘‘ Don­leavy, though re­garded as a shy recluse, was a vig­or­ous pub­lic self-pro­moter, con­tin­u­ously forc­ing his ca­reer on­ward and up­ward


JP Dun­leavy in the li­brary at his home Lev­ing­ton Park, Mullingar, in 2014.

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