JP Donleavy’s A Letter Marked Personal: long anticipated, finally delivered
Begun in 1999 when Donleavy was 73, this novel is a more reflective and serious work
JP Donleavy in New York. Photograph: Bill Dunn
JP Donleavy, who died in 2017 at 91, lives on in his work. The Ginger Man, his 1955 debut novel that censors could not stop, has never been out of print and is now considered a classic. The Lilliput Press last year published The Ginger Man Letters, Donleavy’s correspondence with the Trinity friends who inspired the novel’s main characters. This month Lilliput publishes A Letter Marked Personal, the last novel Donleavy completed.
It’s pure Donleavy – stream of consciousness riffs, shifting voice and verb tense, unexpected twists. But there is an intriguing difference. Begun in 1999 when Donleavy was 73, this novel is more reflective and serious than most earlier works.
Nathan Langriesh Johnson, onetime door-to-door lingerie salesman who got run off doorsteps and punched in the face for his efforts, made his way to the top of New York’s rag trade, now overseeing a lingerie empire. Wife Muriel is still attractive but high maintenance. He’s 49, attentive but feeling restless. Nathan’s contending with narcissistic models, an embezzler and competitors copying the designs he copied in Paris and Milan.
He does have his one-room bolthole near the Flatiron Building where he can decompress and his newly acquired weekend retreat in Westchester County, Blueberry Hill, where the Anglophile in him can live like a country squire. Along comes Iowa, a model from Iowa, different from the rest. Nathan’s captivated. The story shifts back and forth between reality and fantasy. The narrative unfolds in Nathan’s mind and his conversations and interactions. The letter of the title unexpectedly arrives, addressed to Nathan, but opened by Muriel. And suddenly Nathan’s ordered life is in chaos, he’s fighting for survival and to hold on to his dignity.
The prolific Donleavy had three books published between 1996 and 1998 – a novella, story collection and novel. He was looking for a premise for his next novel. He found it in a casual conversation with a visitor to his Westmeath home, Levington Park. New Yorker Bob Mitchell, a friend of Donleavy and his son Philip, told a true tale of an entrepreneur who invested in a risky venture that succeeded beyond expectations. Being generous, he gave his family shares in the business. All was good. Then a letter addressed to the guy, marked “personal and confidential”, arrived and was promptly opened by the wife wondering what was so personal and confidential. The letter writer was a long-ago lover. The wife, according to Bob, went “ballistic”. She engineered a coup, combining her shares in the husband’s business with their child’s shares to oust him.
Bingo! Donleavy had the idea for his next novel. He spent several years writing A Letter Marked Personal, taking the novel and its characters through twists and turns far beyond the seminal story. As with his previous novels, the protagonist is a composite of real people, including the person he knew best, himself, and some sheer invention. Scenes are a mix of the fanciful, actual and speculative. While not the model for Nathan, Bob Mitchell’s father, Adrian, was Donleavy’s source for the backdrop of the lingerie business.
Adrian had been a partner with his brothers in Mitchell Brothers, Inc, a leading US manufacturer of intimate ladies’ apparel, headquartered in Manhattan. Adrian and Donleavy, who were contemporaries, developed a transatlantic phone friendship. As the novel developed, Donleavy no doubt asked Adrian many questions about the rag trade to flesh out the details. But Donleavy needed no help with the novel’s locale, New York City, which he remembered well and captured in vivid descriptions of buildings, streets, neighbourhoods, the congested traffic and noises in the city that never sleeps.
The traits of Nathan, grown more grey and reflective with age, are vaguely similar to septuagenarian Donleavy – hair thinned and gone white but trademark beard full. Both had succeeded in tough businesses yet maintained a gentlemanly air, enjoying vintage wines and classical music, favouring tweeds, dropping British phrases into conversation, with the same English car, a Daimler, in the garage. And like Donleavy, Johnson would buy a country house with stables for horses on an estate overlooking a lake.
Throughout his long career, first as a painter, then writer and playwright, with attendant controversies and triumphs, Donleavy had been what journalists call good copy, always available, highly quotable, ready with anecdotes, observations and opinions. In the long stretch when there were no new books published, coverage slowed. Still there were reporters occasionally phoning or visiting the aging literary lion to find out what was up. He was always ready with stories and iconoclastic views that amused and informed. Invariably reporters asked what he was working on. And in the resulting articles, there was always passing reference to his work-in-progress, A Letter Marked Personal, which gave fans around the world hope.
By 2005, the novel was basically completed, topping some 400 manuscript pages, awaiting the author’s final close edit and polish. But Donleavy suddenly put A Letter aside, intending to return to it, but never did. Instead he resumed work on a short story, The Dog on The Seventeenth Floor, written in 1993, mistakenly filed away and forgotten until its chance rediscovery. In time the short story grew into a novella and then a novel-in-progress. A 3,000-word excerpt appeared in the Princeton University Library Chronicle in 2010. But by then Donleavy was no longer actively writing or editing, although he wrote a few subsequent inserts to be added to The Dog manuscript and notes about it and other topics.
In his last years, Donleavy enjoyed the occasional visit of a friend, fan or journalist. Ever the artist, Donleavy would occasionally sketch, which he found relaxing. He liked to sit in his kitchen or living room, in a comfortable chair, listening to classical music. On sunny days he enjoyed sitting outside, under the porte cochère or on the gravel drive, surveying his fields and grazing cattle, ancient trees swaying in the breeze. James Patrick Michael Donleavy died on September 11th, 2017 at the Regional Hospital, Mullingar, after suffering two brain aneurysms.
A Donleavy fan who became his friend and then archivist, I read A Letter Marked Personal at various stages and knew it merited publication. Antony Farrell, publisher of The Lilliput Press and Donleavy friend, agreed. The manuscript went through a final edit and polish. Long-awaited and much anticipated, the novel will please Donleavy fans and possibly surprise some with its poignancy and introspection, and will surely attract new readers.
A Letter Marked Personal is the third of what Donleavy called his New York stories, preceded by The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms (1996) and Wrong Information Is Being Given Out at Princeton (1998), all set in his hometown of New York. The first two books carried the subtitle The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to be Rumoured About Around New York. This is Donleavy’s 14th work of fiction and first novel in two decades. A Letter is a worthy addition to the Donleavy canon, which now totals 28 books, including his plays, works of nonfiction, collections of short pieces, correspondence and memoirs.
Bill Dunn is the editor of The Ginger Man Letters. A Letter Marked Personal, published by The Lilliput Press will be launched on October 17th at 6.30pm in Books Upstairs, D’Olier St, Dublin 2