Friday, September 18, 2015

J. P. Donleavy

"I'm all for Christianity, but insolence must be put down." - Sebastian Dangerfield

These days university campuses are, in the words of an Internet wag, "an oasis of totalitarianism in a desert of freedom."  As it is with humor, it is an overstatement, but not that much of one.  The contemporary literary world is a political stew that fears dissenting opinion and literary raucousness; a place of myriad micro-aggressions where "trigger warnings" must be issued to literature classes before they can study Shakespeare or else the students potentially suffer debilitating emotional trauma.  In light of this, I'm rather glad that J.P. Donleavy is still alive, still writing, and still irreverent.

There was a time, when I had lived in Europe for awhile, when I realized that I didn't want to return to the United States.  At the least, I did not want to return to schools that I had known in the U.S.  In my own country, especially during my high school years, I was perpetually regarded as "having potential" if only I would "apply myself", which is the lazy teachers' way of saying "the teacher would have to work in order to interest this kid in the subject and that's not going to happen".

When I arrived in Scotland, within minutes of my first day at school, one of my math masters introduced himself by saying, "Good morning, Master Robert.  You are very welcome here."  That was 45 years ago and I still remember it vividly, as there was never a time when any of my stateside teachers welcomed my presence.

In Scotland I had classes that were oriented towards discussion and contributions from all, where liminal observations were encouraged and not ridiculed, and where the life of the mind was the highest good.  Well, as long as everyone showed up for "footer" at 3.  Because of their encouragement, my schoolmasters made sure that, by the time I was 15, I was able enough in French to read Proust, in Greek to read Homer, and in geography to know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia.

Then I returned to the U.S.  Ah, well.  The great thing was I returned with the capacity for self-education.  Yes, it can leave some holes in one's knowledge, but it can also easily overturn dull-witted pedagogues and the stifling restrictions of government schooling.  Being my own teacher has helped me through one U.S. high school, a college, a university, and four graduate and post-graduate programs.  I credit those good people in the U.K. for that.

So it came as little surprise to listen to James Patrick Donleavy explain, once when closed inside an elevator car with him [a long story to be offered in the future], why a fellow such as himself, born in the Bronx in 1926, came to prefer to study, work, and live in Ireland, even going so far as to adopt the fashion of an Irish squire, complete with a ubiquitous three-piece tweed suit so deliciously worn that one expects twigs to fall out of the shoulder pads.  In fact, one gets the impression that, if such a thing existed, he would wear a nine-piece suit.

Having received an adequate education at Fordham Prep near his neighborhood of Woodlawn [it's on the east side of Van Cortlandt Park in an area that still has a lot of Irish-American families], Donleavy enlisted in the Navy during WWII and, returning home at war's end armed with the largesse of the G.I. Bill, sought to enroll in a U.S. college.  None of them would have him so, on a lark, he wrote to Trinity College in Dublin.  According to Donleavy's version, they wrote back, "Come on over."  He did and has never left.

 Really, who could blame him?  This is the Trinity College library.

Even with "The Bill", life as a student was poverty-ridden and Donleavy, like the other expatriate Americans, was barely be able to eat with any regularity.  This caused the already Bohemian-minded Americans to keep their own company and live a riotously Dystopian existence. This gave Donleavy, thinking of becoming a writer, an idea for a novel and, with it, would become one of the voices in what is now known as the "Angry Young Man" movement.  This requires some explanation, however.

English-language literature underwent a significant change shortly after the conclusion of World War II.  In both the United States and the United Kingdom, government money was made available to the returning troops to permit them to attend college.  This opened the opportunities of higher education to a much broader coalition of potential students, especially in the still very class-conscious U.K.  British universities had never before seen the sons of the working class on the quad and their participation in university life brought a new, often visceral, voice to the study and interpretation of literature, history, philosophy, and theology.  It was a necessary correction to a system that favored one narrow class and injected a needed energy into higher education, but it wasn't an easy change for those involved, especially on the part of the entrenched elite.

[I once heard an amusing story from a relative of my wife's, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, the "band of brothers" whose story was made known in a popular history book and television mini-series, who had fought on D-Day and all the way to the fall of Berlin, liberating a concentration camp along the way.  After his discharge, he and fellow soldiers enrolled in the University of North Carolina where they were chronologically older than the other incoming freshmen, and morally so because of the death and mayhem with which they'd lived for four years.  One of the deans meeting with the new students carried with him a box of freshmen "beanies" that were to be worn during the first semester.  He took one look at the incoming class, in their mid-twenties, barely shaven, and with eyes that had repeatedly stared into the abyss of battle, looked again at the beanies, and announced the end of that particular UNC tradition.  He knew they would never wear them.  He also didn't bother attempting to talk them into joining the glee club, either.]

In the British system, the veterans were not greeted with warm regard and found themselves ostracized from the general company and comforts of the more traditional students, those with acceptable pedigrees with long family connections with the educational institutions.  As the new students were not only older and working class, they tended to be married and with children, another new experience for the schools.  Thus, they were not eligible for dormitory housing.  The local off-campus housing was sub-standard and often squalid, local groceries tended to arbitrarily raise prices for the "wealthy" uni students, and social services were slow to respond.  So the new class of students reacted to this systemic resistance by being provocative and guttural.

Upon receiving their degrees, those who went into the written arts began to publish, or attempt to publish, plays, stories, and novels that reflected their particular voice, one that relished the visceral details of poverty, alcoholism, violence, social constraint and, particularly, anger.  In 1956, John Osborne produced his play, Look Back in Anger, about an educated, working class man caught in an emotionally violent love triangle within the confines of his small apartment.  While a rather bland offering by today's standards, in a theatre world still dominated by George Bernard Shaw's rather polite stage work, the play was an enormous success and engendered the term "Angry Young Men" to describe this new perspective.

Two years earlier, Kingsley Amis had published Lucky Jim, a novel about a working class interloper attempting to become an instructor at a small, English college.  The protagonist does not benefit from a classical education, is condescended to because of his northern English accent, and is manipulated terribly by the woman in his life.  While Osborne's play was raw drama, Amis had a lighter, more comedic touch, and presents Jim's situation with humor.  Although, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of humor knows, it can mask a considerable well of rage.

In the novel's climax, Jim is to give a public lecture on the history of "Merrie England", a topic chosen by his department head.  Intensely disliking the inherent dishonesty of the topic, but knowing that a successful lecture will secure his career, in his nervousness Jim imbibes too much beforehand, delivers an inebriated version of the lecture and, instead of presenting the information palatable to his department chairman, breaks into a brutal re-assessment of English history that shocks the audience.  He then passes out.

In the midst of this renaissance, Donleavy worked his experience as a student at Trinity into a novel, at turns humorous, sentimental, infuriating, and touching, that was of no interest whatsoever to any of the publishers in the U.K. or U.S.  While not obscene by any common standard, and hardly shocking to contemporary readers [after all, the women in my small town recently read 50 Shades of Gray in their book club at the senior center], the novel's protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, is so un-apologetically and energetically narcissistic, sybaritic, and carnal, so absolutely an incarnation of the classical satyr, that no publisher wished to chance an obscenity charge.  Donleavy finally found a publisher in France. However, in order to protect themselves legally, the publisher released the The Ginger Man in 1955 through a subsidiary that dealt exclusively in...casual pornography.  The book was in good company, though, as the publishing house also released Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, another book judged "obscene" by the standards of the day, that same year.

[I could review the novel's plot, I suppose, but I'd really rather the novel be discovered by readers of The Coracle.]

Eventually, The Ginger Man would find both U.K. and U.S. publishers, be translated into a successful stage play [with Richard Harris as Dangerfield], remain in print even to this day, and be judged by Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.  Not bad for "casual pornography", is it?

[An aside: Donleavy didn't want to be known as any kind of "pornographer", so he sued the publisher to move his non-pornographic novel to a less controversial subsidiary.  The legal machinations continued for some time until Donleavy, through proxies at a public auction, bought the publishing firm. Due to the curiosities of continental law, this meant that he was now suing himself.]

Donleavy would write many more novels, often re-working the general theme of The Ginger Man, detailing the travails of a raw personality in the midst of a sea of masks; people who disguise their base nature and, unlike their protagonist, become twisted and inauthentic because of their masquerade.  He has also written plays and some volumes of autobiography.  A gifted story-teller, his tales of life as an American in Ireland are always entertaining, as is The Unexpurgated Code, a rude and hilarious guide to life.

As often happens, the school of literature that he represents made the translation to film in the late 1950's and early 1960's, which is the medium through which most people are familiar with it.  While a film was made of Look Back in Anger, with Richard Burton in the primary role, other original or literary adaptations were offered during the same period:

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) 
The Entertainer (1960) 
A Taste of Honey (1961) 
A Kind of Loving (1962) 
The L-Shaped Room (1962) 
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) 
This Sporting Life (1963) 
Billy Liar (1963) 
Alfie (1966)

Donleavy himself is still alive, about to turn 90-years-old, and living still in a rambling Irish manor house that is, like many of those represented in his books, mostly falling down.  In an age such as ours, when university courses in literature are disintegrating, with fewer and fewer students enrolling in the classes or majoring in a subject that is less about stories and more about race and gender politics, and the critical thinking required in lit and art courses having been replaced by the rote repetition of politically correct tropes, it would be healthy to reintroduce the vital narrative voice of the AYM movement.

As he once helped to liberate a stifled intellectual life, Donleavy's characters, and his bloody-minded determination to be anything other than superficial, would be a welcome and refreshing change from the dregs of "Oprah's Book Club".

With that in mind, the photo below of Donleavy with the actor who wishes to turn his works into film gives me some hope that there will soon be such a renaissance.