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Analysis of J. P. Donleavy’s Novels

In his Journal of Irish Literature interview published in 1979, J. P. Donleavy (23 April 1926 – 11 September 2017) said: “I suppose one has been influenced by people like Joyce. But also possibly—and this is not too apparent in my work—by Henry Miller who was then literally a private god.” Appreciation of Donleavy’s work is indeed improved by cognizance of these two acknowledged predecessors, and it is entirely appropriate that the former is Irish and the latter American and that all three expatriates have been subject to censorship litigation.

jp-donleavyThe influence of James Joyce is most apparent in Donleavy’s style, and it should be noted that the Ireland of Donleavy’s work scarcely overlaps with that of Joyce’s work. Joyce made self-conscious and even self-indulgent style a necessity for the serious modern novelist, and Donleavy creates his own evocation of Dublin and other Irish environs in an intricate prose style characterized by minimal punctuation, strings of sentence fragments, frequent shifts of tense, and lapses from standard third-person narration into first-person stream of consciousness. The single most obvious indication of Donleavy’s stylistic ambitions is his habit of ending his chapters with brief poems.

The influence of Miller is most apparent in the fact that Donleavy’s novels, for all their supposedly “graphic” language and sexual encounters, create a world that is a patent fantasy. As in Miller’s case, the primary aspect of the fantasy is a distinctly male fabrication based on unending sexual potency and invariably satisfying liaisons with uniformly passionate and voluptuous women. To this, Donleavy adds fantasies about immense wealth, requited infantile eroticism, Dionysian thirst, and spectacular barroom brawls. Because of this comic freedom from actual contingencies, his work satirizes absurd caricatures of recognizable social evils.

The central concern of all of Donleavy’s novels is the fortune of a single male protagonist isolated from family and country and pursuing a lifestyle that is improvised and erratic. The great exemplar of this essential situation is The Ginger Man, a novel that weighs the joys of decadent drunkenness and ecstatic sex against spiritual fears of loneliness and death. After that first novel, which left the future of its protagonist ambiguous, Donleavy went through a period of bleak despair over the viability of a free lifestyle and emerged from it into a period of wholehearted endorsement of its pleasures. In the process, his view of the world changed from a belief in its essential malevolence to an assertion of its essential benevolence. He thus confronted the problem of the value of independence from social conformity from two wholly different perspectives.

The Ginger Man
The Ginger Man, Donleavy’s famous first novel, opens with a pair of subordinate clauses; the first celebrates the spring sun, and the second laments Dublin’s workaday horse carts and wretched child beggars. It is between these two emotional poles that the Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield, vacillates throughout the novel. He will be exalted by visions of freedom and possibility, but he will also be crushed by fears and depressions. In The Ginger Man, freedom is revolt against the forces of social conformity and rigidity, a casting over of the bulwark virtues of thrift, reverence, and self-discipline. The fear, however, is of the ultimate victory of those same forces and values. The novel refuses to resolve neatly these oppositions. Dangerfield, subject to reckless extremes throughout, finally remains both the Ginger Man, an alias suggestive of spirit and mettle, and Sebastian, the namesake of a betrayed and martyred saint.

One of the novel’s achievements is its candid admission of the most deplorable aspects of a quest for freedom such as Dangerfield’s. It is appropriate and commonplace in contemporary fiction that an alienated protagonist should court his wife for her dowry and run into debt with landlords, shopkeepers, and other pillars of middle-class society. Donleavy, however, proceeds beyond this comfortable degree of roguery to a proposal of a more complete anarchy that is the novel’s most compelling and disturbing quality. Dangerfield also beats his wife, abuses his child, senselessly vandalizes the property of strangers, and is otherwise selfishly destructive because of a self-proclaimed natural aristocracy, a phrase crucial to Donleavy’s later novels. In this respect, he sins far more than he is sinned against, and one measure of the novel’s complexity is the fact that its most sympathetic character is a matronly Miss Frost, who is devoted to Sebastian but is abandoned by him when her finances have been consumed. The Ginger Man is superior to many contemporary novels contemptuous of society because of this admission of the sheer egotism and selfishness underlying such contempt.

Dangerfield’s redeeming features, which make him an antihero rather than a villain, are his invigorating bohemian bravura and his true appreciation of life’s quiet beauties. The novel is appropriately set in Dublin, mirroring a fine appetite for great talk and plentiful drink. On one level, the novel is about the meeting of the vital New World with the stagnant Old World, for Dangerfield and his Irish American cronies flamboyantly outtalk and outdrink the Irish, who are portrayed as a mean and frugal people who can only be bettered by insult. Dangerfield’s appreciation of subtler sensual delights, however, is as essential to his character as those more raucous tastes. His love of the smell of freshly ground coffee wafting from Bewley’s in Grafton Street is as important to this novel as its more notorious adventures with whiskey and women. In these aesthetic moments, including the appreciation of the rising sun in the opening of the novel, Sebastian provisionally justifies his sense of aristocracy and demonstrates a kind of moral purity not shared by the novel’s other characters.

In conjunction with the picaresque comedy and titillation of Dangerfield’s more preposterous adventures, there remains the essentially naïve and ultimately unfulfilled desire for a simpler, solitary bliss. The Ginger Man is Donleavy’s salient novel because it manages this balance between frivolity and remorse, between freedom and surrender, an opposition resolved in different ways in all of his subsequent novels.

A Singular Man
Donleavy’s second novel, A Singular Man, was also held up by worries about censorship, and it was published only after Donleavy threatened to sue his own publisher. Donleavy left the bohemian lifestyle that gave Sebastian Dangerfield vitality for the opulent but gloomy existence of George Smith, whose freedoms have been lost to the encroachments of great wealth. The premise of the novel has obvious autobiographical relevance to the success of The Ginger Man; George Smith is accused by his estranged wife of sneaking into society, and he is in fact bewildered by his inexplicable attainment of sudden wealth and fame. The novel frustrates autobiographical interpretation, however, because it represents the emergence in Donleavy’s work of the caricatured environment common in his later novels. The nature of Smith’s industrial empire is mysterious, but he travels through surroundings with names such as Dynamo House, Electricity Street, and Cinder Village, and makes his home in Merry Mansions.

Smith’s only obvious claim to singularity is his solitary appreciation of the hollowness of material wealth, and the novel records his increasing disillusionment and despair. The only satisfying one of his several love affairs is with the sassy Sally Thompson, doomed by the sorrowful machinations of the plot to death in an automobile accident. Smith’s only respite from the responsibilities of his financial empire is the construction of a fabulous mausoleum under the pseudonym “Doctor Fear.” A Singular Man is controlled completely by the obsession with death that was always counterpointed in The Ginger Man with a potential for sudden joy, and its style reflects this severe introversion in its reliance on more extended passages of stream-ofconsciousness narration than is common in Donleavy’s novels.

The Saddest Summer of Samuel S
Although A Singular Man explored the despair of wealth, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S broadened the gloom of Donleavy’s post-Ginger Man novels by exploring the despair of a vagrant lifestyle. An expatriate American living in Vienna, Samuel S is an overage Ginger Man whose misery is caused by the stubborn isolation from society that was at least a mixed virtue in Donleavy’s first novel. In this novel, the only humor is provided by Samuel’s bleak confessions to his shocked psychoanalyst Herr S, who functions as a socially acclimated if complacent foil to the alienated but determined Samuel S. The comedy is, however, completely overwhelmed by Samuel’s inability to accept the apparent happiness of a relationship with an invigorating American student named Abigail. It is as if Donleavy set out to correct simplistic praise for The Ginger Man as an unambiguous paean to rootlessness by stressing in The Saddest Summer of Samuel S the costs of bohemian disregard for domestic and social comforts. The novel presents no acceptable alternative to Samuel’s self-destructive insistence on alienation for its own sake, none of the moments of happy appreciation of life that redeemed Sebastian Dangerfield.

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B
Balthazar B is Donleavy’s most withdrawn and morbid protagonist, and the novel named for him represents the author’s most consistent use of religious resignation as a metaphor for a passive secular disengagement from a malevolent world. The presence of his prep school and college classmate Beefy adds a raucous dimension reminiscent of The Ginger Man, however, and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B resuscitates the power of outrageous farce in Donleavy’s work. Balthazar, another Donleavy protagonist who is fatherless and without a surname, progresses only from childhood fantasies about African pythons to more adult but equally futile ones about sex in aristocratic surroundings. Throughout the novel, he provides naïve perspective that enables Donleavy to satirize social pretensions and rampant materialism.

The beatitudes that govern most of the novel are Beefy’s, which bless the beastly virtues of complete decadence and joyful carnality but prove inadequate in the face of repressive social conformity. The ultimate beatitudes of the novel, however, are Balthazar’s, which emerge late in the work and resemble those delivered in the sermon on the mount. Having accompanied Beefy on his salacious adventures and seen his companion undone, Balthazar—who, like Donleavy’s other early protagonists, identifies with martyrs—is left only with a saintly hope for later rewards such as those in the beatitudes recorded in Matthew’s gospel.

The Onion Eaters
Like Balthazar B, Clementine of The Onion Eaters is a protagonist plagued by lonely remorse and surrounded by a dynamism in others that he is unable to emulate. He is a young American heir to a medieval British estate, a situation whose effect is that of placing an introspective and morose modern sensibility in the raucous world of the eighteenth century novel. As in most of Donleavy’s novels, the central theme is the vicissitudes of a natural aristocracy, here represented by the fortunes of Clementine of the Three Glands in a chaotic world of eccentric hangers-on and orgiastic British nobility. The emotional tension of the novel is based on a deep desire for the freedom of complete decadence in conflict with a more romantic yearning for quieter satisfactions. That conflict enables Donleavy, as in parts of The Ginger Man, to create a titillating fantasy while concurrently insisting on a sort of innocence, for Clementine survives his picaresque adventures with his essential purity intact. The significant contemporary revision of an older morality, however, lies in the fact that in Donleavy’s fiction such virtue goes unrewarded.

A Fairy Tale of New York
In Donleavy’s later work, fantasy is allowed to prevail over remorse, and this new direction emerges first in A Fairy Tale of New York, in which a protagonist named Christian is tempted by the evils of the modern metropolis much as the traveler Christian is tempted in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). This novel has a special interest within Donleavy’s work for its description of a return from Ireland to New York City, which is characterized in the novel by gross consumerism.

In A Fairy Tale of New York, Christian is more a protector of real virtues than a seeker of them, and the novel ends with a comment on life’s minor and earthy beauties rather than the plea for mercy that is common in Donleavy’s earlier works. A brief vignette of the same title published a decade earlier provided the opening of A Fairy Tale of New York, and the intervening years saw a change in Donleavy’s literary interests that enabled him to pursue a fulfilling fantasy beyond the limits of vignette. The result, however it may finally be judged, is a sacrifice of the emotional tension of his finest earlier work in favor of the pleasure of unconstrained fabrication, a surrender of psychological depth for a freer play of literary imagination.

The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
Returning to the spirit of the eighteenth century novel that animated The Onion Eaters, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman evokes a world of baronial splendor, earthy servants, seductive governesses, and naïve tutors without apparent concern for the forces of modern technology and consequential social ills common to the contemporary novel. It is a stylish and literate entertainment without moral pretensions, a vein of fiction entirely appropriate to the alliance with freedom of imagination arduously explored in the course of Donleavy’s work.

There are allusions to a darker world beyond the novel’s immediate environs, such as housekeeper Miss von B.’s wartime experiences in Europe, but these serve only to stress the value of the free lifestyle pursued by Darcy Dancer without guilt and without controls beyond a decent sense of chivalry. One indication of the shift from morbidity to frivolity apparent in Donleavy’s work is the fact that the setting here is Andromeda Park, named for a goddess whose miseries were relieved rather than for a saint who was martyred. However, Leila, sequel to The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, retains the tone of upper-class superficiality while reintroducing a darker view: In this novel, Dancer becomes enamored of a woman but is left helpless when she marries another man.

images (1)Schultz
Schultz is similar to The Ginger Man but expresses no remorse or recrimination. Its operative assumption and central motif is a concept of the world as a pointless Jewish joke, and this permits the London theatrical impresario Sigmund Schultz to exploit materialism without moral doubts and Donleavy to create a world in which even the sinfully rich prove ultimately benevolent. Class consciousness and privilege are a matter for comedy rather than bitterness in this novel, and the foul-mouthed American social climber Schultz is accepted with amusement rather than repelled with horror by English royalty.

The perspective of the novel is so completely comic that venereal diseases are presented as mere inconveniences, the political world is represented by the monarch of an African nation named Buggybooiamcheesetoo, and the romantic liaisons are unabashed and masturbatory fantasies. The most important distinction between The Ginger Man and Schultz is that in Donleavy’s first novel the world was seen as malevolent and in the latter it is seen as benign. In accordance with this movement, the author has shifted from a celebration of gallant but doomed improvised lifestyles to a forthright assertion of their superiority to accepted and inherited modes of behavior.

The style and structure of Donleavy’s work continued to evolve: De Alfonce Tennis, the Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions, for example, is such a mishmash of story, satire, and whimsy that the reader is hard-pressed to categorize it. Despite the negative critical response to Schultz, Donleavy’s public proved loyal, justifying an even less distinguished sequel, Are You Listening, Rabbi Löw? Donleavy’s fiction of this period deliberately deprives itself of the emotional conflicts central to his earlier, saintlier protagonists. It represents as well an insolent abrogation of the traditional concerns of “serious” fiction. By contrast, The Ginger Man was superior to the bulk of postwar novels about bohemian expatriates in Europe because of its sense of the limitations of that lifestyle as well as its potential. His nonfiction of the same period includes two books about his adoptive country, the largely autobiographical J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland and A Singular Country.

That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman
That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman completes the trilogy of Darcy novels, which collectively provide the high point of Donleavy’s later work as a novelist. Although ostensibly set in twentieth century Ireland, the focus is on traditional, even anachronistic Irish rural life and values, which impelled Donleavy to make important stylistic modifications to fit the leisurely milieu, particularly in slowing the pace of events and descriptions to mirror the setting. This well-integrated juxtaposition of plot and characters drawn from the tradition of the eighteenth century novel with Donleavy’s distinctively modernist style accounts for much of the freshness of the three works.

Darcy’s battle to keep Andromeda Park afloat as his resources run out depends upon finding a wealthy wife, but the only woman he can imagine truly loving, Leila, is lost beyond hope of recovery as a marchioness in Paris. Among the unsuitable matches he considers are his neighbor Felicity Veronica Durrow-Mountmellon and two American women heirs from Bronxville, Florida, and Virginia. Rashers Ronald plays a large role in the book as Darcy’s virtually permanent houseguest and best, though most unreliable, friend. The novel’s climax is a chaotic grand ball at Darcy’s estate, at which virtually every character to have been featured in the trilogy makes an appearance. At the end of the book, Ronald is engaged to Durrow-Mountmellon and Darcy is finally reunited with Leila, providing unusually traditional closure for a Donleavy novel, perhaps by way of winding up the trilogy.

Wrong Information Is Being Given out at Princeton
Donleavy’s next full-length novel, Wrong Information Is Being Given out at Princeton, presents the first-person narrative of  Alfonso Stephen O’Kelly’O, in some ways a typical Donleavy hero. He is a social outsider with no money and expensive tastes, a problem he thinks he has solved in marrying the daughter of a wealthy family. Stephen differs from most of his predecessors, however, in that he is a dedicated musician, composer of a minuet that has been offered a prestigious opening performance by the book’s end. Although most of Donleavy’s protagonists have artistic sensibilities, Stephen is one of the few who manages to be genuinely productive. His devotion to his work provides him with a moral and ethical center that often outweighs his hedonistic impulses, making him to some extent a principled rebel rather than just another of Donleavy’s failed would-be conformists.

Major works
Long fiction: The Ginger Man, 1955, 1965; A Singular Man, 1963; The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, 1966; The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, 1968; The Onion Eaters, 1971; A Fairy Tale of New York, 1973; The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, 1977; Schultz, 1979; Leila: Further in the Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, 1983; De Alfonce Tennis, the Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions: Its History, Accoutrements, Rules, Conduct, and Regimen, 1984; Are You Listening, Rabbi Löw?, 1987; That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman, 1990; The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured About Around New York, 1995; Wrong Information Is Being Given out at Princeton, 1998.
Short fiction: Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule, 1964.
Plays: The Ginger Man, pr. 1959 (adaptation of his novel; also known as What They Did in Dublin, with The Ginger Man: A Play); Fairy Tales of New York, pb. 1961 (adaptation of his novel A Fairy Tale of New York); A Singular Man, pb. 1965; The Plays of J. P. Donleavy:With a Preface by the Author, pb. 1972; The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, pb. 1972 (adaptation of his novel); The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, pr. 1981 (adaptation of his novel).
Nonfiction: The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners, 1975; J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland: In All Her Sins and Some of Her Graces, 1986; A Singular Country, 1990; The History of the Ginger Man, 1994; An Author and His Image: The Collected Shorter Pieces, 1997.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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