Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP J.P. Donleavy

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.


  1. I read several of Donleavy's novels in my early 20s, and would agree that The Ginger Man is a real classic.

    On the other hand, I don't think any of the later books added to his achievement - they seemed like less-and-less-effective self-plagiarisms.

    Also, I don't think Donleavy was good for me! The world view he was propagating was ultimately incoherent and parasitic - I suppose 'evil' is a fair description of it... And he kind-of pulled me into it, somewhat.

    But he did very well well with TGM, and created an original comic novel Perfect Of Its Kind. Which is a heck of a lot more than most writers manage.

    I would place Donleavy's stature half-way to Flann O'Brien, who created *two* perfect comic novels (in English), each very different from the Other (i.e. At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman).

    I was once being driven past Mullingar, and the driver pointed-out that it was where Donleavy lived (taking advantage of the Irish tax exemption for writers) - whom he described as that man who 'got rich by writing dirty books'. That's him put in his place!

    1. I think Donleavy's books are pretty amoral and could be a bad influence on a reader, although there is a kind of chivalry involved in them too-- oddballs and unfortunates are treated quite tenderly. I can't claim they had a bad influence on me because, back when I was a fan of his, I was so lost that I don't think any book could have made me worse.

      When I interviewed him he complained about the perception that his books were samey-- he said they were "black and white" different. Even admiring him as I did, I didn't agree with that, though I kept my mouth shut diplomatically. Personally I don't mind authors repeating themselves, though.

      Flann O'Brien is certainly the bigger talent. Those two novels are great, also his spoof of the Gaelic primitivism The Poor Mouth, and best of all his collection of Irish Times newspaper columns The Best of Myles.

  2. Sad to hear JP's gone. Read him through the 1970s & 80s, always forlorn stories even when bawdy. The Onion Eaters was his first humorous novel, which I relished. I just quoted him when I replied to a political commentator on Trump's Middle East disaster. That final poem sums up the madness of our time.

    1. Thanks for that, Anyonymous. Sorry for the delay in publishing.