‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ at 40: A book that can change your life

Alexander Larman recalls the glee and disbelief at one of literature’s most beguilingly horrible figures

Artillery Row

‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him’

– Jonathan Swift

Many years ago, I undertook an internship at the New Statesman on the books desk. I would like to say that I found myself exposed to many brilliant authors and titles that I would not otherwise have encountered, but unfortunately I did not. However, one sublime thing did come out of my brief stint in the Statesman’s confines. The literary editor one day handed me a copy of a book with a peculiar title – A Confederacy of Dunces  – and told me, very solemnly, that it had life-changing properties. As he put it, with an entirely straight face, ‘When I read this book for the first time, I laughed so much that my girlfriend thought I was having a fit and called an ambulance.’

Ignatius J Reilly: philosopher, glutton, hypochondriac and committed onanist. I read the book with glee and disbelief

A couple of weeks later, in the entirely unlikely surroundings of a music festival somewhere in Essex, I could be found making similar noises of hysterical merriment, to the consternation of those around me. Not since reading Decline and Fall had I encountered such a perfectly realised comic world with similarly grotesque but hilarious characters, all crowned by one of literature’s most beguilingly horrible figures, Ignatius J Reilly: philosopher, glutton, hypochondriac and committed onanist. I read the book with glee and disbelief, entirely ignoring the bands that I was supposed to be writing about, and frequently wondered how something as irreverent – as wrong  – as the novel before me had won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. And then I started to look into the circumstances of its creation, and its publication, and learnt that fact was just as bizarre as fiction.

The New Orleans native John Kennedy Toole killed himself in despair before publishing his book. Many promising literary careers have ended similarly, but they did not have as committed and dauntless an advocate as Toole’s mother Thelma, who, after his suicide, devoted her efforts to seeing her son’s work published. She succeeded, and its success soared beyond Toole’s wildest dreams. Yet, appropriately enough, it has had a strange and often farcical afterlife that has now led to a publication of a meta-novel dealing with one of the 20th century’s most unusual literary sagas.

Toole was a born writer, but a lack of recognition in his lifetime led to his doubting his ability, even while it was obvious to his mother that he was truly talented. Despite his having written his first novel, The Neon Bible, at the age of sixteen, he would subsequently dismiss it as a ‘grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South’, and denounced it simply as ‘bad’. It would serve as a mere amuse bouche before he embarked upon the book that he believed would be his masterpiece, a complex comic epic that he named A Confederacy of Dunces, after the Jonathan Swift quote.

The circumstances of its creation were unorthodox. Toole had to place an academic career on hold when he was drafted into the American army in 1961, and wrote the novel while stationed in Puerto Rico, where he was responsible for teaching English to Spanish recruits. The book was inspired by everything from his life in New Orleans to a professor who he knew, Bob Byrne, whose slovenly and inappropriate habits were considerably removed from the usual expectations of academic rigour. Toole and Byrne would have lengthy, alcohol-assisted conversations about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and the way in which the goddess Fortuna supposedly brought good or bad luck, depending on her inclination. Like Sherlock Holmes, Byrne wore a deerstalker hat and had a similarly elevated view of his own brilliance; unlike Holmes, Byrne was a flatulent and lecherous buffoon who had firm views on the place of women in society, preferably under his substantial bulk.

He was a writer’s dream, but Toole found himself bringing in his own neuroses and autobiographical aspects into the character of Ignatius, too. When he left the army, he moved in with his parents for a while to complete the book. Unable to find the academic employment that he sought, he became a hot dog vendor for a while, and so Ignatius did too, armed with a cutlass and a superior aspect. Toole found his mother’s concern about his lack of conventional success irritating and wearying, and so he cruelly caricatured her in the character of Ignatius’s mother Irene, a genteel and hapless tippler who her son describes to the world as a ferocious alcoholic. The newly liberated Sixties feminists were personified in the figure of the beatnik Myrna Minkoff, who enjoys a love-hate epistolary relationship with Ignatius, who refers to her as ‘that minx’ with a mixture of angry contempt and fascination. And Toole’s representation of New Orleans’ diverse racial mix in the figure of Burma Jones, a low-grade porter at the Night of Joy, a bar frequented by many of the lead characters, can only be described as daring. Progressive or right-on, it is not, but that is a large part of its thoroughly disreputable, un-politically correct appeal.

Toole finished writing his magnum opus in 1964, and sent his manuscript to the editor Robert Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster. Gottlieb, who was responsible for publishing Joseph Heller’s similarly off-the-wall Catch 22, was troubled by the novel. He could recognise the originality of Toole’s voice and the extraordinary comic invention within it (‘you’re wildly funny often, funnier than anyone else around’), but, after a long, agonising period of indecision, he eventually declined to publish it in 1966. His major reason for rejecting it was that, for all of its wit and originality, he remained unconvinced that it had any particular point. As he wrote to a disappointed Toole, ‘with all its wonderfulnesses, the book—even better plotted (and still better plotable)—does not have a reason; it’s a brilliant exercise in invention, but unlike Catch 22 and Mother Kisses and V and the others, it isn’t really about anything. And that’s something no one can do anything about.’

Toole, at his most Ignatius-like, travelled uninvited to New York to see Gottlieb and plead his book’s case, but he was unsuccessful. He began to lose faith in Dunces, especially after the highly regarded local author Hodding Carter Jnr, in whose patronage he had placed inordinate hopes, showed little but polite contempt for it. He continued his academic career without enthusiasm, and then, after a descent into paranoia and mental instability, gassed himself in his car in March 1969, while on a road trip. He left a suicide note for his mother, which she described as being full of ‘insane rantings’, and that seemed to be the end of that.

If that was the end of the story, it would be a happy one, but instead there is a curious sequel, namely the never-ending attempts to see it filmed

Yet after Thelma recovered from the shock of her 31-year old son’s death, she devoted her efforts to seeing his abandoned novel published. Although most people that she sent it to displayed no interest, in 1976 she sent it to the author Walker Percy, an academic in New Orleans. Percy, who felt that he had been pestered by Thelma, read the manuscript with great reluctance in order to be rid of her, but soon recorded his thoughts. ‘In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good.’ With his imprimatur, it was eventually published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980, and achieved giddy critical acclaim, sales of a million and a half copies, and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize: a fitting vindication of both Toole’s and his mother’s belief in the book’s qualities.

If that was the end of the story, it would be a happy one, but instead there is a curious sequel, namely the never-ending attempts to see it filmed. It was originally supposed to be made with John Belushi as Ignatius and Harold ‘Groundhog Day’ Ramis as its director, but Belushi died of a drug overdose just before a contract was signed. Other rotund actors such as John Candy and the comedian Jonathan Winters were considered, and a truly off-the-wall suggestion was that John Waters, the so-called ‘Pope of Trash’ would direct and cast his regular lead Divine. After this failed, Waters said ‘It’ll never happen. How can a movie ever live up to that book? So many people have tried to do it. Some of the top directors in the world have tried to make that movie, and I don’t know if it’ll ever happen.’ He then struck a cautionary note, saying in a later interview, ‘maybe it shouldn’t.’

The producers who owned the rights then turned to Stephen Fry in the early Nineties. As Fry told me in a recent interview, ‘The difficulties I faced with my adaptation were the picaresque and often almost surreal nature of the story, the deeply unusual and often so apparently aggressively belligerent, intractable and ornery character of Ignatius – and the lack of a tidy narrative resolution. Ignatius is somehow lovable when you read the book, but can easily come across as what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “motiveless malignancy” in the bare frame of a screenplay.’

Nonetheless, he embraced the challenge. Believing that his Britishness didn’t disqualify him from adapting this quintessentially American story – ‘I think in a sense I’m no more of a foreigner to John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans and his very particular worldview than any given modern American might be. We’re all foreigners in his world’ – he was flown by Paramount Pictures to New Orleans for a week to get to know the city; something of a necessity as, as he puts it, ‘New Orleans is –after Ignatius (and his mother perhaps) – the biggest character of the novel.’

This proved similarly unsuccessful, and despite interest from the eclectic likes of Steven Soderbergh, Pedro Almodóvar and Will Ferrell, the novel remains unfilmed. Fry believes, however, that its time may yet come. As he said, ‘Many might think that a character like Ignatius railing against TV, pop music and contemporary culture is sorely needed to countervail the infantilism that has washed over us all since the book’s publication. One lone, loud, roaring, eructing voice against the tsunami of comic book heroes and “live action” movies may not do anything to stem the tide, as indeed Ignatius and Toole didn’t in their own time, but it would be a noble endeavour. It may be that longer form TV is the only way to cope with the structural problems that have obviated a traditional feature film version.’

It is both an all-American narrative and yet has a distinctly British sensibility to it

And if it never comes to Netflix or the BBC, there are still other ways of enjoying the strange world that Toole has created. The ever-excellent Folio Society recently produced their own edition of the book to tie in with the 40th anniversary of its publication, with a perceptive preface by the comedian Bill Bailey and suitably bizarre and colourful illustrations by the BAFTA-award winning animator and illustrator Johnny Hannah, which brings the novel’s more colourful and grotesque aspects vividly to life. And this year a novel was published, I, John Kennedy Toole, written by Kent Carroll and Jodee Blanco, which tells the lightly fictionalised story of the novel’s creation and publication, using a mixture of speculation and biographical fact to bring the tragic yet hopeful saga to life.

I will never tire of reading or re-reading A Confederacy of Dunces. It is both an all-American narrative and yet has a distinctly British sensibility to it. One major but unacknowledged influence is surely the minor comic classic Augustus Carp Esq, a Twenties novel about a hypocritical religious zealot and his grotesque friends and family; Carp’s pompous and (literally) flatulent belief that he is the anointed one and that all around him are knaves and imbeciles finds a direct corollary in the presentation of Ignatius four decades later. And, forty years after it first reduced readers to hysterical, uncontrollable mirth, I can only hope that someone will purchase it and that their snorts of abandon will lead someone else to call an ambulance in fear for their health.

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