Reader, please me join me in a prayer for the soul of J.P. Donleavy, the Irish-American author whose death was announced today. Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord; may perpetual light shine upon him; may he rest in peace.
I was a big, big fan of J.P. Donleavy in my late teens and early twenties. I came upon his work by complete chance; somehow, a copy of De Alfonce Tennis, one of the strangest books I've ever read, happened to be knocking around the house. I've never been able to find out where it came from. De Alfonce Tennis is a book about a form of tennis which (I eventually learned) was actually played by Mr. Donleavy and his friends. The book is partly a novel, partly a humorous manual on the rules of the game and the way of life expected of its players. The protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author, and the narrative describes an ocean liner journey to America, during which he falls for a beautiful English woman named Laura. How I fell in love with Laura! She was the epitome of female desirability to my fourteen-year-old self; accomplished, intelligent, mysterious, pale-skinned, dark-haired. At one point, we are told that she had travelled to Tibet where she had been the only woman ever allowed to look at certain sacred texts. That was what I wanted women to be, at that age; awe-inspiring.
Laura and Jay Pee (as he is called in the book) play the first ever match of De Alfonce Tennis on board the liner. The game's court and rules are, as a result, full of nautical references. (The game's rules and equipment were bequeathed to the narrator by a mysterious "Founder"; I forget the exact details.)
Obviously, I recognized the book was a big leg-pull, but the surprising thing was that many of its passages were startlingly lyrical. I read them again and again
I went on to read other Donleavy books; his debut and most enduringly famous work, The Ginger Man, set in the bohemian fifties Dublin that he knew as an American student on the G.I. Bill; The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, a novella set in Vienna, which peers into the world of an eccentric expatriate whose life revolves around his psychoanalysis sessions; A Fairytale of New York, the meandering story of a free spirit in New York who spends time working in an undertaker's, amongst other things (if the title sounds familiar, it's because Shane MacGowan swiped it for his song); The Onion Eaters, a romp set in an aristocratic house in the Irish countryside, whose new owner is impoverished, and afflicted with a rash of house-guests, most of them uninvited; and a few others, which I didn't like as much as the ones I've named.
Donleavy was a complete original. His plots were not particularly inventive or imaginative, and his stories were rather shapeless; they often seemed to begin and end at random. But his prose was very often pure poetry. I remember being literally unable to sleep one night, at the age of sixteen, after reading The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, because I wanted so badly to write like J.P. Donleavy. At one point, my father accused me of hero-worshipping him!
One memorable feature of Donleavy's books were the little poems he would use to finish most chapters. Here is one example, from The Onion Eaters. (Please forgive the coarseness; Donleavy could be extremely bawdy).
As the circus continues
More crazy than cruel
One of us now
Will spin like a top
On the end of his tool.
Another notable feature of Donleavy's prose was that he would often put the verb at the end of a sentence, German-style, apparently for aesthetic effect alone. I don't have any examples to hand, but he would write something like: "I sauntered down Fifth Avenue, eager the city's giddy atmosphere to taste". I loved that. The idea of simply playing with language in this way intoxicated me.
I actually got to meet J.P. Donleavy, in 1998, when I was twenty-one. I wrote a fan letter to him, and asked if I could interview him for an article. He sent me a postcard, which I've carefully kept, inviting me to phone him, which I did. We arranged that I would travel down to his rather grand residence, Levington Park in Mullingar. I interviewed him for perhaps an hour and a half. I taped the interview. (I recently came across the cassette. I have nothing to play it on now, though. I'm not even sure it's playable after all this time.) The resulting article was published in Foinse, the Irish language newspaper. He was a very gentlemanly, down-to-earth fellow, not at all the eccentric I was expecting. He told me that one of the reasons he'd granted the interview was because I'd mentioned De Alfonce Tennis in my letter, a book that (he complained) most people simply ignored.
Well, that was then. In the nearly twenty years that have passed, I've often thought of sending him a Christmas card. Now it's too late. It's a long time since I've read his books, and I'm not sure I'll ever read them again. They belong to a particular moment in my life. But they were very important to me in my youth. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.