5 JULY 1963, Page 16


Castles of Fear

By V. S. NAIPAUL THE Ginger Man* is Sebastian Dangerfield, twenty-seven, born in St. Louis, Missouri, of wealthy parents, but now, after service in the American Navy, studying law in Dublin on the pittance provided by the GI Bill of Rights. Too old for study, too displaced for respon-

sibility, he is nevertheless married, with a baby daughter whose name—Felicity--despairingly suggests the calm, ordered and now so remote world of her mother, the daughter of a retired English admiral. Sebastian is no protector. He wars against his wife as he wars against land-

lords. One set of shabby rooms succeeds another. . Shabbiness is supportable because scarcely

noticed. For Sebastian it is responsibility and the fixed, already exhausted relationships that are the tedious threats; there is freedom only in bars and unfamiliar bedrooms.

Marion, his wife, endures one defeat after another, each defeat more corroding than the last because each new struggle was itself a

triumph of her will, her Englishness (as Sebastian sees it), the instincts of her class. She is con- tinually on the brink of hysteria. The marriage was a mistake; Felicity was a mistake; the study of law was a mistake; Ireland was a mistake.

They are mistakes too enormous for repair.

Marion and Felicity disappear to England, never to be seen again, never to be regretted.

Sebastian abandons Law, abandons Dublin for London. Good news awaits him here: his father is dead. The legal letter arrives. Sebastian will inherit only when he is forty-seven. What a joke!

It would have served in another book, another world. Here it only reopens the void. 'Each time I subtract twenty-seven from forty-seven it leaves twenty.' All that remains are the boozing fellowships and the possibility of a fresh start, a possibility already darkened by the past and shadowed by death:

He was walking down the slope side of the bridge past this broken building, a straight dark figure and stranger. Come here till I tell you. Where is the sea high and the winds soft and moist and warm, sometimes stained with sun, with peace so wild for wishing where all is told and telling. On a winter night I heard horses on a country road, beating sparks out of the stones. I knew they were running away. . . . And I said they are running out to death which is with some soul and their eyes are mad and teeth out.

The lyrical style, the corny joke. The fugitive sentimental yearning for beauty and calm, the urge to self-destruction and disfiguring obscenity. The high spirits of the Ginger Man are fraudu- lent and unpleasant. At their centre there is no calm, no hope, not even withdrawal. There is only the void; and nothing will lead to nothing. Sebastian Dangerfield is no Gulley Jimson, ob- -

* THE GINGrR hrititN. By J. P. Donleavy. (Corgi Books, 5s.) sessedly sane, more rooted than the sOciety which rejects him. In Sebastian we recognise only a barely suppressed hysteria. It is the hysteria of the dispossessed, the rootless, the lonely. For Sebastian America is the rejected past, the image, in moments of sexual climax, of a girl, now dead, dancing on the hood of a crimson Cadillac. Ireland is the present, a mistake, from which temporary reftige is to be found in bars and brawls and the violation of the neat, warm rooms of lonely women. `My dear Chris, don't worry now. I'm here. I think it's a fine room, safe, nest of love. And you won't be lonely again.'

Sebastian neither rejects nor is rejected. He is simply separate from the world of 'those busi- nessmen from Bradford and Leeds who live between the brownstone buildings in stinless smoky streets . . . but smiling, the richest men

the world.' They belong to the 'limbo of the living.' For him every day is a new beginning; every day will end as the last. The people about him, have their plans, ever changing, their pre- cise dreams, their separate little cells of warmth. 'How small we make our worlds. Gather them in, tighten them up into little castles of fear.' But their defences are no defences at all. Security is something they readily abandon; the women will be only too glad to open their purses for Sebastian and soon they will be weeping beside him in bed. Alone among Sebastian's acquain- tance, O'Keefe offers nothing. He is also an American and also a student on the GI Bill of Rights. A failure, a virgin, he dreams of sex and security, which he pursues in Ireland, France and America. He clowns about his failure, but his outbursts are touched with the passion which Sebastian keeps secret. He is Sebastian's jester, Sebastian's other personality; and although O'Keefe fears, as he says so often, to be dragged down into the gutter with Sebastian, it is the only relationship which supports him.

Words glamorise. The drab can seldom be rendered with conviction. Joyce did it in parts of Dubliners. It seems at first that Donleavy isn't doing it here. The adventures of Sebastian, brawler, bum, destroyer, come to us with an approving lyricism which appears out of place and outrageous. But drabness is no part of Don- leavy's vision. He has no social or moral com- ment to make, and his lyricism is not a trick of style, but a failure with words. This lyricism, this occasional but acute sense of beauty and the past as pain, is one side of Dangerfield's hysteria. Another is Dangerfield's brutality; and yet another is his clowning. It adds up to a type of self-indulgence, and there comes a point where we can take no more of Sebastian's stamp- ing off to pubs and pawnshops, no more of his brawls and cruel jests. (How skilfully the author manages the name of his character! Now he is Dangerfield, now Mr. Dangerfield, now Sebas-, tian : indicating, almost, that this wilfulness was

part of Donleavy's purpose.) The pitch remains the same for too long; a narrative graph will show few peaks. Hysteria is wearing: Dangerfield is an emotional parasite. We. understand and up to a point we sympathise. But Dangerfield is draining; he gives nothing. He is neither hero nor little. man. His rogueries are petty; his triumphs are over the weak and the lonely.

Yet The Ginger Man has lasted for eight years, and its fame still.grows. The brief, allu- sive descriptions of two widespread if little- mentioned sexual acts are not enough to sustain a book through nearly a decade. And it would have endured without these. It is one of those books 'which reveal their quality from the first line. 'Today a rare sun of spring. And horse- carts clanging to the quays down Tara Street and the shoeless whitefaced kids screaming.' Twenty-one words, and we are there, waiting for O'Keefe to conic in and climb up on his stool. As an opening it seems to me even better than the celebrated •first sentence of To Have and Have Not. It is more direct, and it sets the tone of the book exactly. It is a tone which is capable of bluntness or allusiveness or lyricism, without strain. It is conversational yet precise. Its nervousness matches Donleavy's narrative manlier; and it can frame all dialogue. On every page there is that immediacy all good writing has.

As original as the tone is the comedy. The comedy, like that of Rabelais, will not be to everybody's taste. It is not, to mine. But its originality cannot be doubted. It is the comedy of anger and defeat and humiliation. It exposes too many nerves and appears to do so wilfully. O'Keefe, the masturbator, the ambitious, the sinking, is made to jest too often for the benefit of Sebastian. Miss Frost, the thirty-four-year-old lodger, generous within her 'castle of fear,' is not only seduced by Sebastian; she is subtly and completely humiliated. This is the narrow range of the comedy. Fully to appreciate it we must release the Dangerfield part of ourselves. But do we share Dangerfield's toughness? 'They put a little word at the bottom of the page to tell you something. Extinct. To be avoided.' Are we solely concerned with avoiding extinction?

The Ginger Man might well soon be seen as the most representative novel of the 1950s. The author of Room at the Top is reported to have said that he spoke for a million young men on the march. The hysteria of The Ginger Man is that of a vaster restlessness. How many previsions it holds of works independently and subsequently conceived! I suspect that this restlessness has diminished. This is why, for all its freshness, The Ginger Man has already, very slightly, begun to give an impression of dating. There are rumours of a new Donleavy novel. It remains to be seen whether he remains rooted in the 1950s, or whether hysteria is banished. '