As a callow undergraduate I was intrigued by the book title The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, but JP Donleavy’s text didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps If I had read one critic’s take, that it was a "warmed-up Ginger Man," I might have saved myself a few pennies. The author died aged 91 at his home in Mullinger on September 11, and it’s his 1955 novel The Ginger Man which he leaves as his legacy and the one with the cult status.
The Ginger Man, which was turned down by 40 publishers, chronicled the drunken exploits of a young American studying at Trinity College, Dublin, after World War Two. It received critical acclaim, including famously from Dorothy Parker and close friend the writer Brendan Behan, who told him “this book is gonna beat the Bible." It has since gained a place in the literary canon. In 1998, The Modern Library placed it in the list of 100 top books, which placed Ulysses by James Joyce in the top spot.
Despite, or more likely because of, the ban in Ireland until the 1970s its success grew by word-of-mouth. Worldwide, it sold more than 40 million copies. Its impact was because of the way the novel traversed the landscape of post-war moral change in Ireland. The Ginger Man remained censored in the United States until 1965, while it remained banished in Ireland until the late-70’s. When it was made into a play it closed after three nights in Dublin under pressure from the media and Church. The main trouble was the sex and language, which shocked at the time, but it also questioned authority and traditional values of Catholic Ireland.
In "Me and My God," Donleavy said "...the Irish idea is to vulgarise things as a way of demonstrating their liberation from the shackles of the Church." In a more generous tone, he explained "The Church is the biggest cultural influence on this country and I'm certainly not against religious ceremonies. The act of going to church is important for the psyche."
JP Donleavy was born in New York, the son of Irish Catholic immigrant parents. In an interview with The Independent, he joked of his origins "I remember when there was some suggestion that the Donleavys were once Kings of Ulster, the Rev Ian Paisley said he would never allow a pornographer like me on the throne of Ulster." In 1946 Donleavy went to Trinity College, Dublin, one of a handful of Catholics at a Protestant university. He explained how he saw religious connections operating, “I was instantly aware of a degree of secrecy in the way people approached you and introduced themselves if they'd learned you were Roman Catholic…. It would be too strong to say the Church had set up a conspiracy. But it did operate like a giant octopus."
The Rev Ian Paisley wasn’t the only one to consider The Ginger Man pornographic. It was placed on the pornography list of his publisher Olympia Press, which pitched a disgruntled Donleavy into a twenty-year legal battle. A contemporary review in The New York Times described the publisher thus, “Maurice Girodias, best known as a purveyor of pornography in his famous Olympia Press but also not incidentally the publisher of such modern classics as Nabokov’s Lolita, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and Pauline Reage’s Story of O.”
The Ginger Man was part of the angry young men syndrome in literature and the sexual revolution, but it seems Donleavy disliked the modern effect upon the women of Ireland. Feminists have since been disturbed by the text, but also by his public statements. A case in point being when he told one interviewer, “The other night I was watching a programme on Irish television with a group of women discussing their sex lives. I can't say I'm not liberal, but I found it slightly objectionable. People forget there's such an element in life as good taste." He was also quoted as saying, "The only advice I could give women is to return to the Church."
Donleavy has left 27 books behind, and The Ginger Man remains in print even if it didn’t fulfil Behan’s prophecy and outstrip the Bible. However one measures it Ireland has lost one of its biggest literary figures, but it seems his reputation is still trapped in time rather than the timelessness of great literature. Perhaps with death will come a reappraisal.
You can see a short interview from RTE here. The image is taken form this film.