Friday, March 14, 2008

J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland, In All Her Sins And in Some of Her Graces

This is some relief, light and dark. I had thought I was tiring of Donleavy somewhat, being underwhelmed with what I read of The Onion Eaters last year. An unfair thing to mention first because every single other book of his I’ve read has been touched by lunatic genius. Unfair too because I didn’t finish it, and essential to the success of his more farcical novels is a building and building of obscene and confounding ridiculousness (cut away sometimes suddenly to leave one breathless with the tenderness behind the ferocity), frustrating at the point when you think he’s taken an idea further than it will go, redeemed invariably with interest when he takes it further and further still. If it ain’t broke, break it. Then break something else. Preferably with your knob out. And / or bosoms. Lewdness aside, Schultz, Donleavy’s all action tale of a disaster-inviting American impresario of London musicals is not a million miles from, say, The Code of the Woosters in its senseless addictive drive, its constant delight in topping its own mayhem. It would seem appropriate to mention that Mr Schultz’s particular musical into which he sinks several fortunes with abandon, is called ‘Kiss It, Don’t Hold It, It’s Too Hot’. Such is my sophistication that this is my very favourite joke of all time. Also to mention that whilst Schultz himself is a complete if bumbling cunt, other of Donleavy’s protagonists are less so, especially if the setting is Ireland, and the character Irish.

J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland is a themed memoir, and the theme – Ireland and Irishness – is so central to the man that the chunks of life omitted under this scheme seem scarcely to matter. Early on he sets out his provenance:

I am a ‘narrowback’ [...,] a term used [...] to refer to the first generation of Irish born in America of Irish born parents whose backs, broad from the old country, now toiled to rear the narrower backs of their children in the New World. (pp. 9-10)

Reading his books originally in isolation from biographical information I was unable to tell where he was from: Schultz seemed obviously the work of an American; The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (a brilliant, brilliant novel) just as obviously that of an Irishman. On Desert Island Discs last year his speaking voice sounded almost RP English, with Irish and American refracted through it. At the time I thought it peculiarly polite, given the hell he raises on the page – and yet he told there, as he does here, the story of Brendan Behan breaking into his house in Kilcoole, reading and amending the manuscript of The Ginger Man in Donleavy’s study, then stealing some twenty pairs of his shoes which just about saw him down the country lane to the pub with dry feet. On the radio the 81-year-old also acknowledged that he still boxes, and seemed calmly to accept that fighting – with the fists, and in court – is just part of life. Not something of which to boast, or be ashamed. But when needs must:

‘It’s him. It’s Donleavy, he’s coming.’

‘You bet your bloody Irish arses I am and I’m going to kick the living bigoted shit out of all of you.’

Of course I may not have said ‘bigoted’ at the time. (p. 198)

This in defence of Ernest Gebler, who was being persecuted (and here outnumbered) for living unmarried with Edna O’Brien in a country particularly sensitive to certain kinds of propriety. Of which, another example:

For upon [Gainor Crist] presenting himself in a chemist’s shop for the first time to buy contraceptives, and making his condom request known, the chemist blessed himself, turned candy coloured purple and red and then knocking over his counter of laxatives and other highly in demand eliminating aids, not only retreated into the back of his apothecary but pushed his two young lady assistants before him. (p. 122)

For autobiography, J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland has an unusual sense of self. For much of the time there is no central character, situations, places and friends taking the stage and Donleavy quietly observing, save when his fists are required. In a very male way, the events he can acknowledge as being worth recording fall into set categories: drunken, reprehensible escapades; good breakfasts; the ‘crut’ (by which he means hypocrisy) of the Irish; and work. The first half of the book sees Donleavy trying to make it as a painter – of ‘wet canvases’, as he puts it, never being quite prepared for an exhibition. He never discusses what his aims are in painting, but the fact that he produced and exhibited the work is clearly of importance to him. Family life he seems to consider outside his remit or our interest, a wife and children being acquired with little comment. And so he emerges an engaging conundrum: at once private and, with his controversial first novel, inescapably public; full of pretensions but by no means a gobshite in putting them about. All delivered up in the unruly infectious prose, the staccato building sentences and the words all out of sequence for cantankerous emphasis which make him a joy to read.

There is not a little irony in the title (if not the subtitle) and even in the cover of this light green book. Donleavy knows he can never actually belong in his parents’ homeland:

Always knowing Ireland was a country in which it was best to be a foreigner, and to be forgiven not knowing of its obtuse tyrannical repressions. (p. 212)

For as much as Ireland is in Donleavy’s veins, he is enough of an outsider to be acutely aware of its shortcomings. The provincial intolerance. This mixture of love and rage (a rage almost with himself) must be responsible for the explosive nature of The Ginger Man, which did not go down at all well in the country which inspired it (‘Telephones went dead. Hostile glances came from every side.’ (p. 209)). In his over-reactions, Donleavy is untouchable.

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