Dell, NY 1980 pp. 313
This was one of the scandalous books of my youth. While not as legendary as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there was, nevertheless, a certain cachet (if you were a schoolboy) to having access to a banned copy of it. Censorship was instituted in Ireland in the 1930s to preserve and promote a Catholic cultural identity for the country and anything deemed un-Catholic, indecent or obscene was banned. Film would be cut — hacked might be a better word — so that sometimes scenes would take sudden turns or end abruptly, and quite often parts of the film were reduced to incomprehensibility. Books were just banned. So, too, were many English periodicals and magazines, jazz records — anything that might undermine the morals of Catholic Ireland. The writers who were banned included most the major writers of the day who were writing in English. The Register of Prohibited Publications was often referred to by wags as Everyman’s Guide to the Modern Classics.
By the time I got to The Ginger Man it was in the late ‘60s and the heavy hand of the censor was getting lighter. Since many of the major Irish writers of the day were banned in their own homeland, this was becoming an embarrassment to the Irish authorities. So, the rules relaxed a bit and many books that had been previously passed around surreptitiously were now openly available. But, truth to tell, when I picked up The Ginger Man I wasn’t impressed. I was under the impression that this was to be a Rabelaisian romp, full of drunken shenanigans and rife with descriptions of illicit sex. “A comic masterpiece” they said. The book seemed was dull, mean-spirited and miserable. After about twenty pages, I put it down again.
The years pass and along the way I acquired books (as one does) and in my library is a copy of the Ginger Man. It’s the green cover from Dell Publishing and dated 1980. It’s a second-hand paperback and bought, I’m sure, because I promised myself that I’d give it another try. And here I am doing a series of reviews of important or informative books relating to Ireland. A perfect opportunity to keep that promise …
Well, I have to say that this is a hard book to like. I’m not a fan of ‘funny’ books i.e. books that are written explicitly to be funny. I find and enjoy all kinds of humor in literature but I prefer it incidental and witty rather than set up. This book I just couldn’t find amusing.
Sebastian Dangerfield is the protagonist. He’s an American (as is Dunleavy) living in Dublin and studying law at Trinity College. He’s married to an English woman (who he thought had money) and is the reluctant father of a very young daughter. He is totally amoral, dissolute, violent to women and a whiner. His world is a shambles of drink, carnal entanglements and chaos and he brings all of his many troubles on himself. He lies, steals, cheats and abuses all around him. And yet, in every chapter, after the latest sordid betrayal, there is a reflective stream of consciousness monologue that gives us a sort of partial glimpse inside of him. There is no attempt made at explanation or excuses; no wish to be redeemed in men’s eyes. But there seems to be the stirrings of self-knowledge or conscience, and, over time, there grows a kind of … pity, maybe for all the failings and the pain. It’s a bit like watching an addict — a narcissistic addict. It’s not pretty but it is interesting.
The writing is what saves the book. At times it’s nothing short of brilliant. There’s a kind of cubist approach where the point of view changes person — from third person to first person or vice versa — and bits and pieces of surrounding dialogue interject to give different simultaneous views of a scene. Likewise in the stream of consciousness passages, grammar is broken and rearranged to create a more kaleidoscopic mind picture. This is the best use of this technique that I’ve seen since I first encountered it in Ulysses and there are echoes of Joyce and of Leopold Bloom wandering the streets of Dublin.
So, a final opinion. There’s much important about this book. The writing moved the art of fiction ahead but I had a hard time getting beyond the repellent behavior of Sebastian Dangerfield. The misogyny was at best cringe-worthy and at worst, infuriating. The same self-inflicted disasters recurring over and over again, was tiresome. And, in the end, it seemed as if this man would never attain enough self-knowledge to ever be redeemed. Or maybe he would — but by then I was glad to be shut of him and didn’t care