My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"'Yes sir, I know that my redeemer liveth. I know it.'"
One of the most unforgettable books I have read in my life! J.P. Donleavy's The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968) combines breathtaking prose, lyricism, and biting humor with sobering reflections on the human condition. It also has the potential to offend many readers on many levels. Descriptions of pre-adolescent sexuality, numerous risqué scenes, and taboo topics make the novel perfect fuel for barbecues in fundamentalist communities. There have been documented cases of Slaughterhouse-Five burnings in this Land of Freedom of ours; Mr. Donleavy's work is a way more deserving book-burning material but - fortunately - not many people have heard about this wonderful novel.
In the grim days of Internet-generated uniformity of opinions, intimidation by political correctness, "safe zones" on campuses and the like, I found this novel a refreshing deviation from the safe-to-read-for-everybody, lukewarm, agreeable pap that dominates the so-called culture these days. We need more rather than less of controversial art to prevent the inbreeding of popular ideas - ideas that most everybody likes.
The novel recounts the first twenty-something years of Balthazar B's life beginning with his early childhood in Paris when he was raised by nannies in a very rich family. His father had died in the boy's early years and the mother was mainly focused on preserving the vestiges of youth. The boy attends exclusive public schools in England and the famous Trinity College in Dublin, and faces the tribulations of the early adulthood. Ostensibly the author focuses on the romantic and sexual aspects of Balthazar B's life: a boy's coming-of-age usual stuff - masturbation, school pranks, pubic lice, first love - but a discerning reader will notice that underneath the titillating facade of the novel the author tackles more important life issues.
The novel is exceptionally rich in humor in its entire range: subtle and understated funny phrases, sentences, and passages are intermixed with laugh-out-loud fragments. From the childhood memory of the Enema Anglaise, through the utterly hilarious scenes of public school housemaster excoriating smuttiness ("concerning things between the legs") and combating boys' masturbation, the live demonstration of dangers of pubic lice for medical students at the Sorbonne, to one of the funniest scenes I have ever read - the neighborhood vigilantes interrupting a carnal coupling:
"'Sir, gurgling and groaning and some cries have been heard out in the garden.'"Yet underneath all this ribald humor there is so much understanding of human foibles, so much compassion that there is no doubt whatsoever about the author's intentions.
The portrayal of Balthazar B is subtle, nuanced, and realistic. A child, a boy, and a young man in search of love. "While others are cunning and deceitful," Balthazar "remains always [...] kind." B's best friend is Beefy, also an unforgettable, vivid character, always in search of "pleasurings." For reasons of public decency I can quote only one of the many beatitudes coined by Beefy:
"Remember, blessed are they who are willing victims of the whip for they will scream to high heaven."It may seem that the novel is light-hearted and fun all around. Absolutely not! It is full of lyricism, melancholy, and even sadness. Miss Fitzdare thread is bittersweet and makes an old man want to cry. And I have left the best thing for last: the extraordinarily accomplished prose. When I read books I mostly care about the beauty of the prose and the author's mastery of the literary craft. This is what makes me round my rating up to the rare maximum, reserved only for masterpieces.
Four and a half stars.
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