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Tag: J.P Donleavy

Frederick Turner: Guaranteed to captivate Miller enthusiasts

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer by Frederick Turner is engaging, erudite, fluent and succinct yet full of novel biographical paraphernalia, which is guaranteed to captivate most Miller enthusiasts. The pulchritudinous little hardback, published by Yale University Press, chronicles how Miller’s first published novel “has risen from smuggled dirty book to American classic”. Turner employs Yankee folklore to explain Miller’s savage abandon and fascination with an anarchically subversive way of life steeped in “murky fringe land between a strict fidelity to the law and actual illegality”. It’s a daring interpretative mode, psychoanalytical speculation always is, but it works. Turner pinpoints certain undeniable similarities between Miller and his folklore primogenitors,  the infamous Mississippi brawlers, gamblers, crooks and filibusterers, who like Miller lived on their wits, shape-shifting, altering occupations, addresses and personae as circumstances dictated. Following in the same line of thought, Turner positions Miller alongside Mark Twain and Walt Whitman –  both once considered on the literary sidelines for their scabrous argots and iconoclast subjects –  to show how Miller inherited a tradition of prose “in the outsized, colourful monologue mode” of the colloquial, and subsequently nurtured it into his very own brand of “rude hieroglyphics”.

Miller had been jawing about becoming a writer long beforeTropic of Cancer, but for all his boorish braggadocio he had perilously little to show for it; or indeed his 30-odd years, except a divorce, a second falling marriage, chronic penury, a handful of literary rejection slips and a profound hatred of America, the unremitting “slaughterhouse” and “monstrous death machine,” as he called it. It is not clear when Miller’s fascination with Europe began, but Turner suggests it may have been inspired by his old school friend Emil Schnellock, with whom Miller corresponded extensively throughout his time in Paris and beyond.  Miller left for the French capital in February 1930, cajoled by his second wife June Mansfield Smith. He shipped out with a borrowed ten dollar note, two valises and a trunk. Turner explains: “In these he had some suits made by his tailor father; the drafts of two failed novels, and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But within him, buried within the accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education, Miller was carrying a great deal more than these meagre effects.” Indeed.  He was in fact carrying a myriad of fantasises, which fuelled by his imminent experiences would eventually materialize into a book that now “belongs on a select shelf of works that best tell us who we are, for better or worse”.

While this may only be marginally true for humanity as a whole, it is certainly true for Miller. Tropic of Cancer tells us everything we need to know about its writer, “the gangster author,” who penned a literary deviant, which reads like a variegated autobiography of inescapable Americanism and an aspiration to European sensibility, a libidinous and comical picaresque of a sexual adventurer and a lovable knave, a daring exposition of an ironic moralist, a manual to the lifestyle of the bohemian deadbeat and a triumph of crude and creative splendour. Turner’s sympathetic and skilful evocation of Miller’s time in the US and in Paris,  spent mostly in depravation with a retinue of factotums, the work that followed and how it ought to fit into the American canon offers some interesting insights; but it never unequivocally states the fact that for all his raging and retreating from the establishment Miller actually yearned to be integrated into the high-end literary tradition. For as Turner himself notes, while talking about his subject’s impoverished background, Miller was “cut from different cloth…so Miller the failed Ivy Leaguer, the college dropout… refused to submit to his cultural and personal fate,” by means of a literary self-erudition, a fanatical interest in EVERYTHING (hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum etc)  and a desperate desire for self-actualisation. In fact, he became a sort of microcosmic noosphere, bursting with ubiquitous knowledge on the page as well as in person.

But neither the writing nor the inspiration came easily, not until Miller met June – at the time the only person who “believed in his star”. Following the chance meeting in the summer of 1923, Miller – then a husband, a father and a man with a responsible job at the Western Union – quit his career, divorced his wife, married June and embarked on a quest to become a writer. With very little success. Turner records Miller’s life with June – the woman who led to his emotional labefaction – with great attention to detail, concluding that “for Miller, June in one way and another inspired his three finest works, the Tropics and Black Spring”. Though often disputed, this is certainly true, for long-after the two separated June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s life, indelibly looming over the man and his work. But there was another force behind Miller’s drive.  Upon his arrival to Pairs, Miller had “apparently lost everything, nationality, job, wife, even his language” thus to stave off loneliness he hit the streets with a notebook and a pen “walking great distances and making notes on virtually anything he happened to see, from the life of the cafes to the carcasses of the newly slaughtered horseS hanging from the market stall hooks”. And  almost everything he did see made it into the book. It is precisely this, his observational deft and pyrotechnical delivery – albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery -that makes Tropic of Cancer remarkable, brilliant.

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer is a considered and intriguing book, which aims to show how Miller’s “heroic confrontation” of his own failures eventually made him into a success. Turner treats his subject objectively but with great enthusiasm and at times with much-needed caution, knowing all too well that Miller was prone to casuistry and embellishment. The discerning biographer does well to outline most of Miller’s influences, friendships, struggles and aspirations, the main one of which was to write a  magnum opus for his wife (June), which earned him great admiration among certain circles and a “shadowy reputation as a writer of truly dirty books” among others. Turner remains the voice of reason throughout the narrative, only occasionally showing disdain for Miller’s callousness and dubious morality, when for example Miller refers to his aborted baby as the “seven month toothache” or neglects his duties as a husband and father. On the whole, Turned does well to pieces all the elements together to show how Tropic of Cancer materialised, even if he doesn’t place the book or its legacy into a greater political and socio-economic context. (Some reviewers have griped.)  Still, there is something he says which is on the money, namely that “writing with an increasingly naked candour about his life” Miller was bridging the gap between “autobiography and literature,”  and since many a great writer has followed the path that Miller bravely blazed.


Writers On Writers

“I admire Chekhov extravagantly, I think every short-story writer does.”
Frank O’Connor

“Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.”
George Bernard Shaw

“I’m all for the complexity of Faulkner, but not for the confusion.”
William Styron

“In Walter Scott’s novels there is a great preponderance of inner over outer life, and incident is never brought-in except for the purpose of giving play to thought and emotion.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

“John Cowper Powys, of course, had the most tremendous influence on me; but then, I never knew him, never cultivated him. I didn’t dare! I was a midget and he was a giant.” Henry Miller

“A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images. “
William S. Burroughs

“Robert Coover. He, too, is circular, but the circles he draws enclose a genius of suggestion.”
Gore Vidal

“Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

“I thought it was extremely pretentious of Behan to sit down and start to do editorial work on my book. But since he thought I was a good writer, and the book marvelous, I was also pleased.” J.P Donleavy

“Whatever the word ‘great’ means, Dickens was what it means. “
G. K. Chesterton

Sources: The Quotations Page, The Paris Review, University of Adelaide 

Brendan Behan: A drinker with a writing problem

There’s a lot to be said for a man who could drink all of his compatriots under the table and still walk a straight line, namely that he had to be Brendan Behan. I say that with the greatest admiration which I have had for Behan ever since reading Borstal Boy. I learned a lot about Behan vicariously through his notoriety and J.P Donleavy, who once characterised his fellow Irishman by saying: “Behan always wore his shirt open to the navel; he never had shoelaces and the tongues of his shoes would always hang out… He was tremendous company…And a very, very interesting and profound man. He was a great raconteur and entertained everyone. Although he was shrewd about fame, most people assume that recognition changed Behan, that he became a great bubbling over, a very talkative, almost loudmouthed crazy man because of success. But he was always like that. He would walk into a village and start to sing….He would carry on conversations everywhere and with everybody as he walked through a street…That was Behan.” But there was also another Behan; a Behan who had an incredible literary gift demonstrated impeccably in After the Wake, a collection of Behan’s writings published by O’Brien Press. The book, with a superb introduction by Peter Fallon, contains some previously unpublished material and boasts a cavalcade of 21 pieces, some fictional, some autobiographical, charting the political, social and cultural history of Irish life through the eyes of one of her most talented but troubled sons.

With typical whiplash flippancy Brendan Behan once noted that the key defining quality of the Irish is “that that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody”. This could not have been more true of Behan himself, as both his life and his work was marked by a distinctive tone of sedition. After Behan died in 1964 from sclerosis of the liver, Flann O’Brien wrote his obituary in The Irish Times, describing his one-time drinking pal as “more a player than a playwright, or, to use a Dublin saying, ‘He was as good as a play’.” Behan was indeed a hell of a showman, and a master deipnosophist, but he was also a remarkable writer with a knack for storytelling, an ear for dialogue, rambunctious wit and a dash of comic mayhem surging through his veins. He joined Fianna Boys (an Irish Republican Youth Organisation) at the age of 14, but was discharged for disorderly conduct under the influence of drink. Behan, nevertheless, carried his Republican politics like a tocsin and spent time in prison for a number of offences, including plotting with the IRA to bomb the Liverpool docks and an attempt to kill two gardaí. It was in jail that he honed his writing skills and gathered up material for his canon. Initially Behan’s literary reputation was built on the back of innovative work, but gradually his writing became secondary to the drinking which killed him aged 41. He died in Meath hospital after reportedly telling a nun looking after him: “Ah, bless you, Sister, may all your sons be bishops.”

Behan began his literary career by contributing patriotic prose and verses to Fianna, The Voice of Ireland, Wolfe Tone Weekly and The United Irishman between 1937-9. But his name became a household one after the publication of Borstal Boy in 1958; an autobiographical account of Behan’s arrest and imprisonment (1939 to 1943) for his involvement with the IRA. After the Wake contains a precursor to the autobiography entitled I Became a Borstal Boy initially published in The Bell in 1942. Written in emblematic Behan fashion with a quaint and loquacious medley of Irish and British slang, it alternates between the stark adrenaline-infused reality of confinement and the delicate and tender nuances of friendship informed, subconsciously, by the axiom that “no man is an island, entire of its own”. I Became a Borstal Boy recounts Behan’s sentencing to “three years’ Borstal detention” in a British correctional facility, and a brief description of another fellow who’d “battered in” his wife. With a sense of poignancy, Behan muses: “He spoke with such evident sincerity that when I read later an account of his execution I wondered if he has been guilty after all.” The piece immediately after, called “The Execution”, was first published in 1978 by Liffey Press, and follows three men as they take a snitch out far beyond the city and to his death, the narrator reasoning that if those who  “give away dumps on us” are overlooked “there’d soon be no respect for the army.” In retrospect, and with a dash of sympathy, the narrator says, “the poor devil wouldn’t have run even if we had let him,” and then with an unexpected sense of subdued altruism: “We put him in the grave. He felt quite warm. I told the lads to be careful not to get any bloodstains on their clothes. We began to shovel in earth. I moved a big stone off my shovel – it might smash in his face.” Behan’s writing has a ubiquitous quality and a remarkable vicissitude as it jumps seamlessly from the coarse to the doleful, thereby deliquescing convention to find a voice entirely its own.

The title story, After the Wake, charts Behan’s friendship with a married couple. The husband, a beautiful blonde man “always a little cultured, proud and happy to be so broad-minded”, she [the dying wife] always full of “adolescent pride in the freedom of her married state to drink a bottle of stout and talk about anything with her husband and husband’s friend.” It caused a bit of a stir upon initial publication in the Parisian magazine Points in 1950 for its portrayal of male friendship and unceremonious allusions to homosexuality. The story stands apart from all the others, whatever the provenance, due to its muted tone and the masterly balance of dramatic tension; for its illuminations of certain perdurable human truths and the ability of people to find solace in one another irrespective of circumstance. Behan concludes the story with a resigned sense of cynicism: “I fancied her face looking up from the open coffin on the Americans who, having imported wakes from us, invented morticians themselves.” Some people have dismissed After the Wake on account of moral turpitude and confusion over Behan’s sexuality. But, according to Behan’s wife Beatrice, the semi-destitute Behan was writing pornographic prose in Paris after the war for money rather than to add to his autobiographical catalogue. Either way, the story is marvellous.

My favourite, however, has to be The Confirmation Suit first published in The Standard in 1953. It is near impossible to reduce a reader to tears, but the story had me lachrymose; the coruscating, hardy prose describing an episode from Behan’s childhood is both tender and provocative, and relays the making of his Confirmation garb by his grandmother’s neighbour. He recalls his grandmother and Miss McCann, who proudly made the garments, crying as they saw him “in the velvet suit, with its small lapels and big buttons” and later celebrating with a “drink to the strength of my having grown to be a big fellow in the space of 12 years.” Embarrassed, Behan wears his topcoat during the ceremony, recollecting afterward how every Sunday from thereon in “my mother fought over the suit. She said I was a liar and a hypocrite, putting it on for a few minutes every week, and running into Miss McCann’s and out again, letting her think I wore it every week-end.” Only later, following the death of Miss McCann who loved him more than any kid she knew, does he realise what it meant to her to have fashioned the ceremonious regalia, concluding: “After the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.” One of the most distinguishable qualities of Behan’s work is its ability to evoke unsolicited emotion and he does do throughout. Similarly, in the first, and formerly unpublished, story of the collection called The Last of Mrs Murphy which records Behan’s memories of an elderly neighbour who, on his fifth birthday, took him to “Jimmy the Sports” for his first “dandy glass of porter” and a bit of “white snuff”. But the story is about more than that; it is about the collective consciousness of a community closely knitted together trough fallen skies, madness, old age, marriage, death and beyond. When Mrs Murphy is taken to the “Refuge of the Dying” by Behan’s grandmother, Lizzie MacCann and Long Byrne, the three neighbours conclude that: “It’s not the kind of place I’d like to leave a neighbour or a neighbour’s child.” The scene ends with a little ardent banter between a nurse and Byrne, when the former says, sniffing at Mrs Murphy, “I get a distinct smell of whiskey”, to which Byrne replies: “How well you’d know it from the smell of gin, rum or brandy… Ah well I suppose practice makes perfect.”

The other previously unpublished piece of the collection is The Catacombs, a part of an unfinished novel, which commences with the following: “There was a party to celebrate Deirdre’s return from her abortion in Bristol” for which Behan “put up the money for the trip and the readies to pay the quack”. The story gets both more absurd and funny, as Behan relays his interaction with Deirdre’s Catalonian-Irish family, her “screwy old bitch” mother, Deirdre’s brother and fellow IRA sympathiser Ciaran, and uncle Hymie who mostly sits “in the corner blind drunk as he has been for sixty years” and infects the world with his poisonous yet comical persiflage. The seemingly copacetic state of affairs quickly develops into garboil as Behan gets embroiled in a forbidden dalliance, is accused of selling “Jesus Christ for three-quarters of a pound of beef,” and nicks a tenner while making his exodus from the pandemonium before heading down to the pub. The Catacombs is a brilliant piece of prose, as are most in the collection; not least the last of the longer pieces entitled A Woman of No Standing. First published in Envoy in 1950, and then some years later as That Woman in Creation the story is an all too human portrait of a deceased man’s “other woman” and her appearance at his funeral. On his death bed in “Pigeon House sanatorium” the man in question is absolved from all his sins, with the priest concluding: “It’s not when you die, but how you die that matters”. As for the other woman, “no one saw her to know what she thought of it, but the priest gave strict orders that she wasn’t to be let near the funeral”. The wronged wife forgives her husband “whatever lingering scald her heart might hold” only to be confronted by the other woman who, “bent in haggard prayer, dressed in the cast off hat and coat of some flahoo”, passes the widow by with “her head down and a pale hunted look in her eyes”. A Woman of No Standing has a wonderful human quality to it, a gift which Behan had in abundance and more than any of his contemporaries.

The remainder 14 pieces under the blanket title of The Same Again, Please were published in The Irish Press between 1954-6. Amusing, impulsive, perceptive, funny, they range in content and tone and style, as the opening of each attests. The following are some of my favourites, starting with: The Turnip Boat which commences with a somewhat arbitrary statement: “For some reason a friend of mine wanted to ship turnips from Six Counties port.” Another one called Toronto Spinster Frowned opens with an even more peculiar thought: “Myself and Winston Churchill were once upon a time in the same organisation; he as an Elder Brother of Trinity House and I as a painter for the Irish Lights.” Then there’s a piece called Red Jam Roll, the Dancer which sees Behan recollecting something with great wordplay: “I am reminded of boxing matters by an encounter I had this day with a former opponent of mine, pugilistically speaking. I do not mean our encounter this day was a pugilistic one, but it was pugilitstically speaking we last spoke.” And Three Celtic Pillars of Charity which deems: “This life is full of disappointments.” That may be true generally speaking, it is not so when it come to Behan. While there’s always a fear that a writer one admires but has read very little of might, in the end, turn out to be a disappointment, After the Wake is an Emerald Isle gem and much like the man himself a heady mixture of “hell and heaven and despair and presumption and hope”.

J. P Donleavy: Black humorist par excellence with a “ritzy accent” and “slamming talent” of Sugar Ray

A good several years ago I wrote to J.P Donleavy in a bout of frenzied, semi-maniacal admiration incited by the reading of The Ginger Man. Nothing came of it, but it felt quite cathartic to despatch a letter to a living writer I admire. Now, having just finished reading A Fairy Tale of New York, I feel like writing to Donleavy again. Or better yet, voyaging to Mullingar to visit him, Taittinger and Bournville chocolates (I hear he’s partial to both) in tow. One day, perhaps.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, to Irish-American Protestant parents, Donleavy was raised in the Bronx, attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School and, after a stint with the US Navy during World War II, applied and was accepted to Trinity College Dublin – due mainly, he later said, to a combination of good luck and the administration’s ignorance. Donleavy arrived at Trinity in 1946 and quickly became a patron of all the illustrious drinking dens, where he met Patrick Kavanagh, John Ryan and Brendan Behan. Recalling his first encounter with Behan Donleavy once said: “He had just been released from prison then. He was in the IRA and I was surrounded by his cronies. As the afternoon’s joke, the two of us were introduced to each other as writers.” Both men of temper with fists-at-the ready, the two of them were squaring off to have a fight outside the pub within five minutes. It was the beginning of a tumultuous but enduring friendship. Behan was, in fact, after breaking into Donleavy’s cottage, the first person to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man. He scribbled intermittently throughout the bulk, interpolating it with little comments such as: “Leave this in,” “Take this out”, before concluding, with great prescience, that the “book will go around the world.” And so it did, several times over.

Brendan Behan died in 1964 from alcohol and hard-living. Donleavy, who once seemed to be heading down the same torturous path, is now 85 and ensconced in an anchoretic, prudent lifestyle within a crumbling Georgian edifice in viridescent Ireland. A tall, graceful, beguiling and uncommonly handsome man, with a hoary lattice of beard, he still looks every sartorial inch the noble literary acolyte renowned for elegantly tailored three-piece suits and handmade brogues. Years ago, when asked about writing, Donleavy simply said, “I knew I had to write.” Describing his own youthful arrogance as “gross stupidity,” he added, “I had incredible nerve. What happens, I think, with a feverish desire is that the imagination will supply for that desire an impetus so that it can be carried out.” I guess he’s living proof of his own prophesy. Later, speaking of New York as a source of inspiration Donleavy proffered: “There are tiny little incidents that happen in New York, that take five seconds to happen…I’ll take that incident and make it into a real story.” One assumes that that’s exactly how A Fairy Tale of New York materialised, but its verve, and its bawdy, riotous spirit has me convinced otherwise – there must have been some thought in it, some meditation in its brilliance.

The story opens when “Cornelius Treacle Christian of the Brooklyn Treacles and the Bronx Christians” returns to the city “on a monstrous boatload of sorrow” after a decade of education abroad; with one dead wife, who kicked-it during the voyage, one suitcase and barely one penny to his name. “Full of dying” and pining for Ireland, the grey skies and woollen blankets which “smelled like sheep”, Cornelius begins to settle into his new life, a new world of soot and baby cockroaches, “great silent weeping streams of people” and city streets bustling with “blacksmiths, bakers and candlestick makers of a hundred years ago.” Penniless and in debt to the funeral home for his wife’s burial, Cornelius gets offered a job by the sprightly funeral parlour owner, Mr Clarance Vine, who seems to be convinced that Cornelius has “the culture and the elegance” required for the hallowed vocation. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet undeterred and sure of his apprentice’s aptitude, Clarance is keen to impart the wisdom he has acquired: “To love your work is happiness”; “This isn’t death. All this is life”; “sorrow demands a perfect temperature”. All this while Cornelius absentmindedly ponders how best to move his “balls to the left side” of his trouser leg, restrain an “engorged perpendicularity” while talking to the female bereaved, or grab a “tasty handful” of some unsuspecting woman’s ass.

Our protagonist is a roistering dandy, with a “ritzy accent”, living the life of a mendicant with “rotted out drawers”. He picks up stray whores, confabulates, coaxes the homeless out of pennies, seduces wives, fornicates with every skirt in sight, regards most people as “unconscionable, wretched fuckpigs”, and has a hook with the “slamming talent” of Sugar Ray. He is, to paraphrase his landlady, an interloper, a pervert, and a hapless “mortician spreading pestilence” in the town of New York – but one of a complex morality and considerable charm. His mind wanders like an inebriated wasp from the iniquitous (when he contemplates asking women, “Awfully politely. May I make use of your service entrance madam. Deliver you a catastrophic fuck. From your local supplier”) to the solemn (when he reminisces about his past: “I had a spouse. To build a life with. In the same bed through debts and worried nights. Shoulder to Shoulder. Till hers battered, caved in…Come to my country I said. To the cranberries and pumpkins and fourth of July parades. Come even to the barren shores where I used to run a mile on the hard sandy soil…now I’ve got to lie at night here between these sleepless sheets without you.”)

The narrative skips from the didactic and haughty to histrionic and ribald, and this linguistic tactic plays a vital role in the plot as the clarity of diction mingles with playful rhetoric, illustrating Cornelius’ despicable yet endearingly tragic persona. Donleavy displaces his protagonist in a foreign culture, dramatising the tawdriness and lack of soul in a modern world, as Cornelius declares: “I don’t belong in this country…This city is against me.”  New York and its flagrantly flawed social ethos is portrayed with topographical realism, which airs the city’s dirty laundry with a characteristically rebarbative tone. Donleavy sneers with impeccable finesse at modern-day America, which is characterised by “big envy, big lust, big greed”, and is a place that’s “sad and bitter”, “a land of lies…vulgarity, obscenity and money. A country of sick hearts.” The character ensemble in A Fairy Tale of New York is chaotically heterogeneous and consists of personages who seem to teeter on the edge, most notably Cornelius’ love interest, the pale-limbed Park Avenue blonde by the name of Fanny Sourpuss, who is obsessed with his “marvellous twitching cock” and constantly pleads for him to “undertake her”. But Cornelius has ideas of his own. Here he is weighing up his options: “Marry and be rich. Stay free and be poor” while “She gets richer. And I get a worn cock. Till death do you part. And your prick falls off in heaven.”

A Fairy Tale of New York is a rigadoon of rascality, a libidinous comic dirge of disappointment, tragedy and the feeling of being lost in a city swallowed by urbanity. Death is an all-pervasive topic and an unusually comic one enriched with the Irish tradition of the macabre. Donleavy has a knack for satirising both the quotidian dross and the sacerdotal as the various characters impart their (hilarious) little apothegms: “God is what your desires are. They should be plenty ass and plenty money,” or “The majority of homicides in this town are acts of justice…ninety nine per cent of the time it’s what people get for being rude,” and “If you eat good, crap good, work good, nothing can kill you except long life.” Donleavy is a black humourist par excellence with an unparalleled ability to lampoon modern life to unruly result, weaving it with witty, lusty, profane, concupiscent and achingly honest discourse. His monologues and dialogues contain a battery of paratactic devices, omitted or isolated words and phrases, reinforcing the ever-shifting voice, tense and subject matter, and making A Fairy Tale of New York a wild and roaring ride through America’s mid-century landscape. And like one of Cornelius’ mischievous dalliances, it feels jolly and sad, “good and bad all at once”.

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