JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man at 60
Brendan Behan was the first to read (and amend) the manuscript after breaking into the author’s cottage. Viewed as obscene, it was rejected by nearly 50 publishers but has now sold over 40 million copies
Producer Philip Wiseman, author / playwright J P Donleavy and Richard Harris, who played The Ginger Man, in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in 1959. Photograph: Dermot Barry
In 1946 a young American arrived in Dublin to study natural sciences at Trinity College. Finding a land untouched by the worst excesses of the second World War and a prevailing mood of conviviality among its inhabitants, he set about his studies. However, it was in the pubs and boltholes of bohemian Dublin that this education was to take place, and the resulting thesis was The Ginger Man.
JP Donleavy’s classic novel, first published in June 1955, is this year celebrating its 60th anniversary of publication. Based on real-life characters and events – it has been said Donleavy took notes whilst the mayhem and madness continued about him – The Ginger Man is an evocative portrait of bohemian Dublin in the late 1940s. In what is essentially a picaresque novel, we follow the exploits of its protagonist, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, an American studying law at Trinity College. Supported by a variety of offbeat and engaging characters, Dangerfield drinks, fornicates and blasphemes his way through the novel while managing to elude all responsibility and work of any kind. The humour is bawdy and at times farcical, the language full of wit and irony. But there is something more. It is a bleaker humour, a humour that is imbued with a sadness that reflects the absurdity of the human condition.
With Dublin in the grip of postwar euphoria and undergoing a social and artistic resurgence, a different kind of literary scene was also developing. The stuffy salons of the Irish Literary Revival had given way to a more bohemian milieu with writers now meeting in pubs and after-hours drinking dens such as the legendary “catacombs”. With two of these pubs, McDaid’s and Davy Byrnes, just a short walk from Trinity College, Donleavy soon found himself immersed in this literary revival.
Two of the characters he met at this time and who went on to play important roles in the publication of The Ginger Man were Gainor Stephen Crist and Brendan Behan.
Donleavy based Dangerfield on Crist, a fellow American who was ostensibly reading for a law degree at Trinity. Crist was charismatic, debonair and a formidable drinker. Taking advantage of an accent that could be passed off as upper-class English, Crist was an expert at obtaining goods on credit, especially alcohol. In chapter two of the novel, Donleavy has Dangerfield going into the Howth branch of Findlaters, a premier wine and food merchants with several branches in Dublin, where he manages to open a quarterly account with no collateral other than his accent and, to enhance his credibility, a makeshift blue scarf, in Trinity rowing colours, that he had hacked from a blue blanket. Donleavy has confirmed to a member of the Findlater family, that this incident had actually taken place and the gentleman concerned was Gainor Stephen Crist.
Behan was the first person to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man after breaking into Donleavy’s cottage while he was away. Behan, who was writing Borstal Boy at the time, also decided to amend the manuscript, much to Donleavy’s chagrin. Despite this, Donleavy has since said that he did incorporate one or two of Behan’s suggestions. Behan also makes a cameo appearance in the novel as the wild Barney Berry.
Donleavy’s search for a publisher for the novel was a tortuous and disheartening affair, which did not end with the novel’s publication. Aware that the content of the novel might pose a problem, his first submission was to America’s most liberal publishing house, Charles Scribner of New York. Under the working title of SD (Sebastian Dangerfield), Donleavy submitted the manuscript on May 1st, 1952. Despite being praised as one of the best manuscripts ever received by Scribner’s, it was rejected for what was considered its unremitting obscenity. The manuscript was to be submitted nearly 50 times before Donleavy was to find a publisher.
The Olympia Press was suggested to Donleavy by Behan during a drinking session in London, which ended with Donleavy and Behan fighting in the middle of Fleet Street. Based in Paris, the Olympia Press was founded in 1953 by a colourful character named Maurice Girodias. Girodias’s aim was to publish in Paris English-language books that “fight Anglo-American conventions”. Unfortunately for Donleavy, all he knew of the Olympia Press was that they had published Samuel Beckett’s Watt under their Collection Merlin Series. Impressed by such a credential, and lured by the reputation of Paris as a haven for artists and writers, Donleavy sent his manuscript to the Olympia Press on 11th September, 1954. After consideration, Girodias replied that he was prepared to make an offer but only if major revisions were undertaken, including a change of title. Anxious for publication, Donleavy agreed to revise the manuscript and suggested The Ginger Man as an alternative title. This was accepted and terms were finalised.
However, Donleavy then received a letter from Girodias asking him if he wanted the book to be published under his own name or pseudonymously – a warning of what was to come. Naturally, Donleavy informed Girodias that he wanted The Ginger Man to appear under his own name. Despite all the rejections, his faith in the literary merit of his novel remained firm.
On July 15th, 1955, Donleavy received a package from Paris, inside which were two copies of The Ginger Man. As he examined the paperback books in their olive- green wrappers, his bewilderment turned to rage as full realisation of the wrong sunk in. Printed on the cover below the title and the author’s name was ‘No 7’ and below that ‘The Traveller’s Companion Series’. Worse was to come. As he flipped through the book, he discovered at the back a page advertising other titles in the series. These included Tender Was My Flesh, School For Sin, The Whip Angels, Chariots of Flesh and White Thighs.
Instead of Beckett and the literary Collection Merlin Series, Donleavy found himself published under Girodias’s “dirty book” imprint. The novels in The Traveller’s Companion Series were written by a group of hard-up literary figures who used the income to subsidise their more serious writing. As they were, in effect, writing pornography to order, they used pseudonyms to protect themselves from the French police. Donleavy was devastated to find himself in the company of such authors and, not a man to be crossed, he swore revenge on Girodias, whom he saw as a trickster and conman. The Olympia Press printed 5,000 copies of The Ginger Man, for which Donleavy received a flat fee of £250.
The publication of an expurgated edition by British publisher, Neville Spearman, in December 1956, brought matters to a head. Girodias disputed Donleavy’s ownership of the British rights and sued for breach of contract. So began an acrimonious legal battle that was to last over 21 years.
In the late 1960s, after the failure of several of his business schemes, Girodias was declared bankrupt, and in 1970 the Olympia Press was auctioned in Paris. Besides Girodias, who was hoping to buy back his treasured Olympia Press at a nominal sum, two young women attended the auction with their lawyer. Much to Girodias’s surprise and annoyance, each time he made a bid he was outbid by the lawyer acting on behalf of the two women. This carried on for some time until Girodias, realising he could bid no higher, angrily burst out of the auction room a defeated man. The two women who had successfully bid against him were Mary Price and Phyllis MacArdle. These two names meant nothing to Girodias until he later found out that Mary Price had bid under her maiden name, her married name being Mary Donleavy. The other woman, Phyllis MacArdle, was Donleavy’s secretary. Donleavy, who now controlled Olympia Press, had exacted his revenge on his sworn enemy.
Despite being initially banned by the Censorship Board in Ireland and expurgated editions published in the UK and US, the book is now listed in the Modern Library’s Best 100 Novels; has been published in over 30 languages; sold in excess of 40 million copies; and has never been out of print. And a much welcome development is Johnny Depp’s discussions with Donleavy to bring the much planned and long-awaited film of The Ginger Man to the screen. This must be very pleasing to Donleavy, who fortunately is still with us – nearing 90, he lives near Mullingar in Co Westmeath and continues to write and paint.
Although Dublin has undergone dramatic changes over the past 60 years and many of Donleavy’s old haunts have disappeared, we still have The Ginger Man to take us back for a poignant glimpse of Dublin in those rare ould times. Sláinte Donleavy!
Colin Overall has a BA from the University of North London in Irish Studies and English, and an MA in Beckett Studies from Reading University. He has published work on JP Donleavy and is an enthusiastic collector of his books.
A 60th anniversary edition of The Ginger Man, with a foreword by Johnny Depp, is launched on July 17th at the Pavilion, Tr9inity College Dublin.