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Donleavy: the man who wrote The Ginger Man


JP Donleavy outside Levington Park in 2011.

JP Donleavy outside Levington Park in 2011.

J P Donleavy and MW

J P Donleavy and MW


JP Donleavy outside Levington Park in 2011.

It is 60 years since The Ginger Man was published, scandalising and thrilling audiences across the world. Banned for obscenity in Ireland until the mid-70s -along with so many other books - it was banned in the US too, until 1965. Unlike many such books, which often seem a bit weak and hopeful when read many years later, it's easy to see what the morality brigade were so het up about in this one; along with the drinking, shagging and wife-beating, the novel contains a description of a sexual act that manages to be both candid and literary at the same time, right up there with Norman Mailer's take on it in An America Dream. However, much good banning it did; the book has never been out of print, and has apparently sold some 45m copies. Now, to mark the 60th anniversary, Lilliput Press is reissuing a commemorative edition, with additional features, including new photographs, copies of the original manuscript with Brendan Behan's handwritten comments - he found it in the cottage they shared and scribbled his notes in the margins - and a foreword by Johnny Depp, who holds the film rights, and who reckons that without The Ginger Man there could have been no Hunter S Thompson.

Donleavy wrote some 15 other novels, along with plays and non-fiction. Many of the later novels are good, particularly the Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, but none so good as The Ginger Man. Dark, atmospheric, with descriptions of a Dublin that is almost nightmarish, driven by a main character who is vicious, selfish and degenerate, but also redeemingly honest and witty, The Ginger Man is an entirely modern novel still, and Sebastian Dangerfield the quintessential anti-hero: a violent, self-pitying, randy drunk, saved by flashes of remarkable insight and humour; savagely self-obsessed, but sensitive too. There is a nihilism, a tragic kind of bleakness that runs right through it and seems as much a part of the times and the country as it does of Sebastian himself.

As for the man behind it - the curious enigma that is James Patrick Michael Donleavy ('Paddy' to his family long ago, now 'Mike' to his friends), an American from an average-seeming New York Irish family whose parents sent him to a "posh" prep school, where, perhaps, he learned his remarkably Patrician tastes (he once told a mutual friend that the Pakenhams at Tullynally Castle were his 'nearest neighbours'; conveniently forgetting the many who live between the two great houses in more ordinary dwellings) - what of him? Now nearly 90, he has, over the years, become very mixed up with his most famous literary creation, Dangerfield (actually based on a contemporary of Donleavy's at Trinity, Gainor Crist, since probably dead, with a grave in Tenerife, although there have been sightings over the years; Donleavy himself once thought he saw him on Nassau Street), clouded by the drama of the women in his life and his soul-destroying legal wranglings, most famously with the Olympia Press which first published The Ginger Man, after 35 publishers rejected it, then produced the book as part of their pornography series; Donleavy was furious, and spent years battling to reclaim the rights. Finally, Olympia Press went bankrupt, and Donleavy bought the company, actually suing himself for a while.

In fact, since moving here, he has lived a life every bit as strange as any of his characters.

Two years ago I visited him at his house, Levington Park, in Mullingar, where rusty iron gates and a pair of moss-and-lichen-eaten stone lions guard the approach to a house that was once beautiful, now badly dilapidated, with a feeling of isolation that owes far more to its crumbling, shuttered state than to any actual physical distance from roads and towns. This, however, may be the way he likes it. "When I look out here, for 15 miles there is not a human being," he said then with satisfaction. "This place goes down to the shoreline of Lough Owel. You're in this strange place where you never see anyone. If anyone is out there, they are a trespasser, and you get the shotgun." He laughed, but I really doubt he was joking.

Together, Donleavy and I then walked through rooms that, he merrily told me, he hadn't been into "in years": damp, forlorn with peeling wallpaper and flaking paint; a tarnished, reminiscent grandeur. The lights were going down across the house, bulbs blown, lamps broken and not replaced, so that it seemed to exist in a permanent twilight; a house without women. The large kitchen and three paper-strewn studies seemed the only habited spaces, although Donleavy assured me that his own room and those occupied by his son Philip, from his first marriage to Valerie Heron, from whom he was divorced in 1969, were pleasant.

That day, he spoke of Dublin as it was when he first discovered it, in the 1950s, fresh out of the amphibious corps in the US Navy - he came here under the GI Bill of Rights for ex-servicemen, with fees and expenses paid by the US government - to become a student at Trinity College: "It was a city of death" is how he described it then. "It was dangerous. You would walk past one of the big old Georgian houses. The front door would be gone, you could look into the hallways. If you stood there long enough, you would see rats running backwards and forwards in the shadows, silhouettes of rats. Why it would fascinate me so much? It was horror in a way. Then you would walk into Trinity and you were in another world." He was, he claimed, one of the few students who dared to actually set out into the city, because he could "handle" himself.

Donleavy came to all this an interesting, if unfinished, product: an athlete who could run a mile in under five minutes, a top-ranking player at something called De Alfonce tennis (an eccentric form of the game practised by Donleavy in his youth, and probably just a few dozen others), a boxing champ with a famously fast left hook. In fact, he was a kind of would-be Hemmingway figure, with a love of masculine pursuits and boozy company - Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Myles na Gopaleen were all pals and drinking companions - an erudite expat with intense literary ambitions, but there is no doubt Dublin, and Ireland, rounded him out, gave him material for his writing and musing.

During the nearly 20 years of his marriage to Mary Wilson Price - a beautiful actress and East Coast aristocrat, known as 'MW' - Levington Park was a place of bustle and activity, where their two children grew up in freedom while Donleavy wrote and MW ran the farm, hunted, socialised and entertained widely. Described by Auberon Waugh in 1976 as a "vast and beautiful mansion", inhabited by Irish wolfhounds and horses, with heated indoor swimming pool and four-poster beds, The Levington Park of those days was a kind of monument to Donleavy's vision of himself, and his desire to be that vision. Tweeds, plus fours, the local hunt on the lawn, the Guinnesses and Pakenhams to tea. Even now, he talks in an accent far more British aristocracy, with a faint hint of Stateside, than anything Irish.

But life as a country squire came crashing down around Donleavy's ears when in 1988 Mary decided to leave him, to marry Finn Guinness, and then, in a bitter custody battle over their two children, Rory and Rebecca, revealed that in fact neither was biologically his. In a kind of three-ring circus of a scandal, it turned out that Rebecca's father was, in fact, Kieran Guinness, brother of Finn and former master of the Westmeath hunt who lived for a time in the gate lodge at Levington Park and with whom MW had an affair, while Rory's father was Finn, who Mary is still married to. Complicated, even these days.

None of this was widely known until a couple of years ago, although those involved knew much earlier - "I had told him when I was leaving him," MW once told me. "He knew instinctively." In the intervening time, despite the initial acrimony of the separation, those at the heart of it have smoothed over their lives in a calm and civilised fashion. Finn Guinness travels with MW at times to see Donleavy, while Rory and Rebecca have "three fathers," according to MW, and still visit Donleavy every few months.

Talking to me now from the UK, where she lives with Finn, MW says she herself last visited "about a month ago. I make an effort to go and see him. We were married for nearly 20 years and are great friends. I respect him; I just couldn't live with him. But my time in Ireland was the happiest time in my life." Donleavy is still, she says, "in amazing physical shape, he always kept himself very fit. But the house is falling down around his ears," adding with a laugh "men rarely appreciate what women do to maintain houses. They don't even notice."

In the grand old days, Mary was a kind of conduit between the artist and the wider world. "I would bring life to him. I knew what would interest him, I knew the stories that would spark his imagination. I didn't write the stories, but I fed them. When he no longer had me to bring that to him, it has become a place where he has disappeared. It's a pity, because he so adores company." When she first met Donleavy, she was 23 or 24, and he 18 years older. "I was from a family where I didn't really have a good childhood," she says. "Mike was very masculine, he made me feel very safe. He afforded me my childhood. And he was very attractive. We married. And then I grew up. I think he would have liked me to stay the young, adoring fan, but that's not possible. Whether you want to or not, you grow up. And I became obsessed with having children, and with him that wasn't going to happen."

Donleavy had, she says, a very protective kind of instinct, particularly towards women - "when he's on your side, you couldn't have anyone more on your side, but when he turns . . . " She doesn't elaborate.

I recall a line from Auberon Waugh's article, describing watching MW stroking her horse, Rosie; "For the first time since I arrived there is a glint of powerful emotion from under his hooded eyes as he watches his wife and the carthorse. There can be no doubt it is jealousy."

Donleavy himself doesn't like to talk much about the circumstances of his divorce. "Well, the reason I don't say anything of that nature is it affects people as individuals," he said at our last meeting. "So I don't ever bring it up. I deal with looking after children, when they did grow up here. Your association with the children gets to that point that you're very conscious of their welfare, of what happens to them, of what they want to do. It will only cease when they themselves want to go off somewhere and be in another world and another life. It's a tough thing." It was a strange, oblique kind of response, but whether to cover the hurt, or the reality that after all these years the pain has dimmed, is hard to say.

After MW, there were many more women in Donleavy's life - all beautiful, many dark, intense and wistful, their photographs dotted among the many, very good, sketches and watercolours by Donleavy himself, and his daughter Karen, from his first marriage. Some of the girlfriends brought their children with them, for as long as they remained at Levington Park - among the various pictures, including two of Donleavy himself, one by Niccolo d'Ardia Caracciolo, another by Robert Ballagh, are seven or eight framed photographs of children, aged from about five up. All, in the end, left. And it is the departure of the children he seems to regret the most. "Children are great company," he said then, a little forlorn. "They'd play tricks, they'd hide, they'd ambush. Ambushing in this house was excellent, because you could approach anything from two different directions. Every child who goes to a front door hears 'oh be careful,' 'don't go far away' 'watch out'. Here, they could open the front door, and run!" Of their eventual departure, he said: "that was tragic. I would try to go down to the front gate when they were leaving, when the car they were in was leaving, sobbing. A dreadful sight."

When I ring Donleavy this time, two years after our last encounter, he is instantly courteous, pretending he remembers me. "Oh yes, I see," he says, with perfect sang-froid, then "Are you coming down?" His voice is light, faintly amused, although the tendency to talk about himself at a distance - as "one" - more pronounced.

I ask is he chuffed at the idea that, where so many books last barely a year, let alone a decade, his has survived 60 years? "It's nice to be reminded of it," he says. "It makes one feel, at least something's happened." Did he have any thought, when he first published it, after being rejected 35 times, that it would go the distance? "I hadn't ever thought that particularly," he says, "but I did think it might be something one might want to reread."

Is there any news of the long-awaited, long-delayed, film of The Ginger Man, which has, over the years, been rumoured many times to be on the way, first with Richard Harris in the role of Sebastian Dangerfield - he played the part on stage at the Gaiety in 1959, for just three performances before the morality brigade had it closed it down - then Johnny Depp and most recently Cilian Murphy, in a version produced by Depp. So, is anything likely to happen, finally, after all the years? "I think people were talking about it," he says courteously, "but I don't know if it's on its way to being made."

Later, I check in with Lilliput's Suzy Freeman, who confirms that, although funding is still not finalised, "I think they are looking for a final investor as we speak - as far as I know Depp's people are still discussing it, and it is on the cards."

Donleavy seems, if anything, surprised at the fuss. Is he still writing? "I'm not doing as much writing as I might have done but I do work all the time. I'm quite busy with all my efforts." These days, he sees few people. "Seven or eight people come a year or so," he says when I ask. "That makes everything look active." Finally, is he happy? "I occupy my time with something that is purposeful," he says.

The crumbling house, the secrets of the past, the discovery of purpose in work - after all, it is of Chekhov that he makes me think.

The 60th anniversary edition of The Ginger Man, published by Lilliput Press, will be launched on July 15. A limited edition hardback, signed by the author, will be released at the same time and is available to pre-order now. www.lilliputpress.ie

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