Sue me, and I'll throw the book at you

The Ginger Man started as pornography, became a 1950s classic, and will soon become a film. But, above all, it's been a legal minefield. Three weeks ago we raised the vexed question of the identity of the hero. That, says J P Donleavy, was the least of my
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Was Gainor Crist the model for Dangerfield, the brawling hero of J P Donleavy's 'The Ginger Man'? Yes, said his widow Pamela O'Malley in 'Who would wish to be the wife of the Ginger Man?' (Independent, 6 May). Now then, retorts the novelist...

Now then. Who among you in this age of enlightenment and tolerance is still antique enough to have ever heard of so-called "dirty books", once nearly the sole source of handy-to-hand personal erotic entertainment, brought back to English-speaking shores to be found by customs hidden deep in a traveller's personal luggage? And who among you would know what it's like to have an accusing hatchet-man from a tabloid say you were corrupting the innocent and were purely a filthy pornographer whose disgusting mind was his only stock-in-trade?

Them times now are long gone but suddenly persecutors all seem to be awake again. Among them are the euphemists who have invaded the publishing houses, pointing to the new naughty words which are no more allowed to be fictionally said. Even a new brand of critic is at large, accusing the author of claiming to be the autobiographical hero of his novel, thus denying that right to the person on whom the fictional character is alleged to have been based. A meal indeed for libel lawyers.

A gentleman from Ohio, Gainor Stephen Crist, was the initial inspiration to write The Ginger Man in 1950 and much speculation surrounded him - not least, that he may still be alive, no one who knew him having actually seen him die or be dead. But as the prototype for the brawling, boozing, whoring, wife-abusing misfit Dangerfield, nothing could be further from the truth. Sebastian Dangerfield was the most fictional of all the characters in The Ginger Man. But Crist's life and mine were similar in background, both of us having served in the US Navy in the Second World War and come to Europe on the GI Bill to Trinity College, Dublin. Marrying English wives we both, fascinated and bemused, took to Ireland, and had many of the same friends and bitter enemies.But we did differ in one way: I was modestly affluent as an undergraduate and he, impoverished with the late arrival of his GI cheques, fell into debt.

However, Crist, in spite of all provocation, never lost his charm nor dignity and was not a boozing, whoring, wife-beating philanderer. He was rather, along with his elegant appeal, a man of immense compassion, faithful to his first wife and devoted to his children. He did drink and took immense pleasure in doing so but never was seen inebriated or incapable. However, while we were both in America, as described in The History of the Ginger Man, he did have totally bizarre adventures - reading Crist's letters aloud with George Roy Hill the film director, an old friend of Crist's, rolling on the floor with laughter, we had to conclude Gainor was one of the most mesmeric men either of us had ever known and was, with his immense benignancy, a saint. If I had ever ventured to say The Ginger Man was autobiographical it was once when a less benignant message reached me through the Irish grapevine that Crist, having heard of my trouble with the Olympic Press, was reported to have said: "I'll sue him. That will add to his worries."

But Crist had to do little to add to my troubles. They were to blossom and endure for many years of my life through the longest battle in literary history, beginning in 1956 and lasting until 1972. A battle which would take me from London to New York to Paris, the latter especially becoming an unfathomable dark world of jurisprudence complicated by the French language and the wonderful snobberies of its protocol. Home, too, of my adversary, that most curious figure of all, the great sexual liberator and founder of the Paris Olympia Press, Maurice Girodias, who, as the first publisher of The Ginger Man, attempted to stop publication outside France, becoming my nemesis and sworn enemy, and I, his.

Composed as it was of thosedisplaced and alien persons who found along with the cheapness of living, personal liberation and exhilaration, Paris was a city which made a congenial if temporary home just after the Second World War. With idleness breeding dreams, endless boulevards to stroll, and the entitlement to your foreign visitors petrol coupons, you could be financed for a fortnight. Best of all, you could, as a pseudonymous pornographer, write a dirty book for the Olympia Press and be paid pounds 250. A lot of money then. And you'd even be among now-legendary literary figures, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett and Christopher Logue to mention but a few.

But it was when I'd achieved publication in Britain that my battle really began. I was not then to know, as several publishers, 45 of whom had previously turned the book down, were now fighting over the rights to publish it, that I was entering a legal war which would nearly take up the remainder of my life. It became early apparent that, in all the opening forays, threats, claims, charges, torts, legal statements, ultimatums, writs, summons, no instance ever arose where the scribbler was not immediately cited, to be castigated and inculpated, and upon whom all blame for legal costs and pecuniary damages could be dumped. Ironically it was Crist who read Law at Trinity and I Microbiology...

While one's life became seclusion and caution and friendly correspondence ceased, social occasions became lawyers' meetings. Which surprisingly were not always gloomy and indeed gave me moments during which I took comfort from these astute gentleman who were by their professions made wise in the ways of life, among whom was the sage Lord Goodman, giving his intellectual utmost to the protection of one of his poorer clients.

The Ginger Man was burgeoning, revenue plonking into coffers. Publications here, publications there, The pot piling up, getting larger and larger on the table of battle. Trials and hearings went by, trips between Paris, London and New York increased as one retreated deeper and deeper into a not unpleasant seclusion. It no longer seemed strange to come out of one courtroom, fly to another continent and city, and within hours enter another chamber of law. As a little victory here and a little victory there occurred, it became less and less that blame was heaped upon the scribbler. In fact it was becoming apparent that folk were hesitating even to mention my name at all. And the great litigator himself Maurice Girodias was heard to say "That Donleavy is possessed of an astute naivete."

My implacable obstinacy had somehow grown in the minds of my adversaries as something to be reckoned with, along with my earlier precautionary cables such as: "Gentlemen only for the moment am I saying nothing."

These words, put together homemade, I regarded as the quintessence of all letters written by all lawyers. I had learned, too, that when it came time to say something a little more descriptive such as estimating an assessment of damages, that it was a good thing to make the numerals quite odd-sounding sums like $300,946.22, and immediately below in the communication spell out in capitals:

THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND FORTY SIX DOLLARS AND TWENTY TWO CENTS

Amazingly no-one seemed to mind what the three hundred thousand dollars was for, but my opponents would call in high-powered consulting lawyers from distant cities to analyse and find out what the Nine Hundred and Forty Six dollars and especially the Twenty Two Cents was about.

And finally a new image of the author was to emerge when I unexpectedly found myself on the18th floor of an old skyscraper in a prominent, if not fabled, New York law office and faced over a desk by a most hostile gentleman, who, as a lady stenographer got ready to record proceedings, had just finished shoving a handful of pills into his mouth. I waited for those first few words, usually said of a timidly jocular nature, but meant to convey that should you capitulate, you'll find we're all reasonable adults underneath our vicious attempts to wipe you out. And then suddenly this crouched-to-spring attorney-at-law, glaring from behind his desk, half rose up and knocking over his vial of pills blurted out: "Do you know what you are? You're nothing but an international litigator bringing innocent corporations to their knees."

I was about to look behind me to see if some greatly feared mogul sat there puffing on a voluminous cigar. But although not quite believing it, I knew something had irrevocably changed.

Meanwhile I contemplate writing the second volume of The History of the Ginger Man. Strange incidents still left in their silence, still haunting the soul. Brinks of disaster that you hope will not come, as you exist further in your bleakness, to awake, alive, surprised each dawn. Holding tight to your courage.

Wondering where

Without Crist

In the world

You can search

To find one smile

Of understanding.

n 'The History of the Ginger Man' is published in Penguin paperback today, pounds 12

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