John Maxwell O’Brien on Writing his Debut Novel Aloysius the Great
John Maxwell O’Brien is an emeritus professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York. He has written prolifically on the ancient and medieval worlds and the history of alcoholism. His best-selling biography Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge) has been translated into Greek and Italian, and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O’Brien’s second life has been devoted to creative writing, and he has published a variety of poems and short stories in literary journals. His debut novel Aloysius the Great is out now with Propertius Press.
Aloysius the Great is a rewriting of Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s subtly done and you could read the whole novel without knowing it. Which scene from Ulysses did you enjoy reworking the most?
No one save a resurrected James Joyce could rewrite Ulysses. But yes, my novel is a treasure trove of Joyce miscellanea and many events in it (by design) resemble those found in Ulysses. For example, in the first chapter of Aloysius the Great, a significant portion of the Nestor episode in Joyce’s Ulysses is recreated through Aloysius’ interaction with a pompous and hypocritical dean; this echoes Stephen Dedalus’ exchange with Garrett Deasy, an ignorant and biased headmaster. To give your readers a sense of the pathological depth and breadth of the Joycean dimensions to Aloysius, the Dean in question is Francis Irwin, the name of a real person in Joyce’s life who became the prototype for the headmaster, Garrett Deasy. My fourth chapter parallels the Telemachus episode in Ulysses and is reminiscent of the erudite and acerbic badinage between Buck Mulligan and Dedalus. A later chapter features a drunken brawl in an Edinburgh pub which draws heavily from the Cyclops episode in Ulysses. Joyce’s brilliance was in layering modern particulars on a Greek mythological matrix. I take it a step further in having more recent incidents layered on to Joyce’s matrix. The hero of Ulysses is a Dublin Jew, my hero is an Irish-American from New York whose mother was Jewish.
What would you say your relationship to Joyce is? Did you experience any anxiety of influence as you were writing the novel?
I felt an immediate bond with Joyce as I turned the pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the age of thirteen. That was reinforced the minute I picked up Ulysses a couple of years later, and I’ve found myself ineluctably drawn to that work throughout my life. I lectured at the University of Leeds in 1967/68 and as that academic year unfolded I found myself involved in an odd concatenation of events, many of which bore a stark resemblance to some of the episodes described in Ulysses. It was then that a Joycean epiphany of sorts occurred. I swore to myself that someday I would write a fictionalised memoir describing these experiences in Ulyssean fashion. However, I was a history professor for half a century and spent most of my time writing about the ancient and medieval worlds. My claim to fame in that field was a scholarly biography of Alexander the Great (I’ve never been interested in ordinary people, only the extraordinary) which was translated into Greek and Italian, and I’ve heard it is now being translated into Arabic. Just a few years ago I stole a glance at that grey-bearded man now occupying my mirror and he shouted back at me, ‘If you still plan to write that novel, you’d damn well better do it now!’ And by the way, no. I never felt the slightest trepidation about poaching on the master’s literary edifice. If Joyce could exploit Homer, I could exploit Joyce.
Apart from Joyce, who are the authors you admire the most?
I’d say, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ellison (I consider The Invisible Man to be the great American novel), Flann O’Brien, Woolf, Greene, Waugh, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Flaubert. Nowadays I’ve been under the spell of Samuel Beckett. Yet for me, all roads lead to Joyce.
The novel is also a campus novel. Did you reference any campus fiction? Your book reminded me a little of Lucky Jim.
I love Lucky Jim – and the genre itself – and lean towards the satirical. Thus Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Tom Sharpe, Jane Smiley and Dorie LaRue are among my favourites. Just saying Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue brings a fulsome smile to my face. I taught at the university level for many years and if you didn’t learn to laugh at what goes on there, you’re irredeemable. If you want to rub shoulders with erudite nincompoops, pick up Aloysius the Great.
Aloysius the Great was published on Bloomsday 2020 and I’ve noticed a parade of highly rated reviews on both Amazon and in Goodreads ever since. Did this surprise you?
There have been fifteen five stars allotted to Aloysius on Amazon and twenty-two on Goodreads – but who’s counting? In the spirit of full disclosure there was one parsimonious individual in Goodreads who afforded it a mere four stars; let’s just say he’s being looked into. My publisher is Propertius Press, a prestigious indie here in the States, but alas, ‘tis difficult for small publishers to attract reviewers from the literary Brobdingnagians, and thus I remain delighted that so many serious readers, including celebrated writers, have found Aloysius well worth their time.
Since creative writing isn’t your field, how did you learn to write so entertainingly?
I read novels omnivorously from an early age and always found time for that personal indulgence even when obligations elsewhere were overwhelming. I also read a barrel full of books on writing a novel, most of which dismembered classic works with atavistic relish, and/or went on and on numbingly discussing literary theory without addressing the nuts and bolts of seeing a novel through to its completion. Then one day, with Tyche the Goddess of Chance, at my side, I came across John Braine’s Writing a Novel and said to myself, ‘Here it is… finally! A pragmatic manual.’ How many words you needed to write, how to structure a schedule, what you needed to bear in mind as you wrote, what you did first, second, third. One of Braine’s axioms that I always kept uppermost in mind was that every scene should be envisioned as if it were up there on a stage and your writing should let your reader see and feel it in much the same way as a theatre audience would. I savaged Braine’s book and always kept it within reach. In the same vein, I discovered that dialogue came easy to me but reading (no less writing) three pages on leaves turning colour in autumn bored the bejesus out of me. Hence, as many reviewers have said, Aloysius is ideal for a play or a movie.
Alcohol permeates the pages of your novel. Is this by design?
Permeates? Saturates. I hope Aloysius doesn’t drive people to drink. If he does, it was probably a short drive anyway. Part of my agenda in this novel was to explore the psychology of alcoholism in depth through the thinking and behaviour of an intelligent, highly educated alcoholic. I established my credentials in this area by becoming an expert of sorts in the history of alcoholism. I spent years researching the subject and writing about it. In fact, I penned the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. I must admit having hoisted a jar or two in my time, but I regard that as experimentation in my laboratory. How’s that for a rationalisation?
Aloysius is a memorable character but perhaps even more intriguing is Mountjoy, an Oxford man, equally bibulous, with a supercilious attitude and a wicked sense of humour. Where did he come from?
In Joycean terms, Aloysius is my Stephen Dedalus and Mountjoy my Buck Mulligan, pompous, witty and condescending. In real life, the latter was a colleague of mine at the University of Leeds who exhibited all of the qualities listed above, but in reality, had a heart of gold. My colleague’s fictional hero was Sebastian Dangerfield from J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, but he was more like Leopold Bloom, a man of insatiable curiosity who loved love and life, especially in its bizarre manifestations. Underneath his obnoxious snobbery was a man who was happiest when he could be of help to others. He’s dead now but hopefully will live on through Mountjoy.
Your book ends in 1968. Why did you choose that particular period of history for the setting of your novel?
Aside from that personal epiphany in England I’ve already described, the 1960s provided a perfect setting for a Rabelaisian romp with larger-than-life characters and outlandish examples of human behaviour. Drugs, alcohol, student chicanery, the rules of the game-changing from one inning to the next, university dignitaries becoming apoplectic in the face of altered reality; all of the ingredients were there for an academic satire.
Do you regard yourself as an Irish writer, despite the fact that you live in America?
I was born and raised in New York City and try as I may to masquerade as an Irishman, I am most certainly a New Yorker and an American. But my grandfather was born in a pub in Kilcullen, County Kildare, and that explains a great deal in and of itself. My father reminded us with monotonous regularity that we were direct descendants of Brian Boru, King of Munster and high king of Ireland. Perhaps that’s why he often referred to us as a royal pain in the ass. I did visit Ireland in 1968, kissed the stone at Blarney, and the damn thing kissed me back! As soon as la peste lifts, I plan on being there with my part of the O’Brien clan to raise a little hell. Joyce and Ireland are always beckoning me back to the auld sod.
Do you plan to write a sequel to Aloysius the Great?
Who knows? Aloysius the Great was published when I was already 80 years old. If it takes me just as long for a sequel, that prospect seems unlikely. However, if Aloysius sprouts wings and elicits interest on the part of a publisher who’s willing to part with a few sovereigns, I’m healthy, willing and greedy enough to climb back on the Gogarty and Mountjoy roller coaster.
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