Niall Montgomery, ‘Abraham Jacob Leventhal: A Eulogy’, in A. J. Leventhal 1896-1979: Dublin scholar, wit and man of letters, ed. Eoin O’Brien, [Con Leventhal Scholarship Commitee] (Glendate Press, Glenageary 1984), pp.9-13.

Delivered in the Chapel of Trinity College Dublin on Friday, 30 November, 1979 in the presence of the Provost, Dr. F.S.L. Lyons, and of a number of Dr. Leventhal’s friends.

[Source: Scanned from original in possession of BS.]

I suppose, with Sir Samuel Ferguson, that the Irish have a special talent for affliction, and it has always interested me that, with them, the essence of the agony tends to be a doubt as to the nature of the malady. Do they suffer from a cultural dichotomy or a cultural duality? Here in Dublin, where our greatest affliction has always been the Irish, we have no such problem. Culturally, we are a trinity; in fact, if we Dublin people were to be given our due ethnic weight, we might be described as a quaternion.

Again, it is interesting that the smallest of the three groups, the Jewish community, at least in the twenties, exhibited the same sort of syndrome that was characteristic of the two larger groups, that is to say loyalty, orthodoxy, piety and the fiercest intolerance. So that, in the twenties, there was a strange situation a society composed of three concentric circules, revolving independently, touching, if at all, tangentially. That situation was aggravated by the fact that, alone amongst the European nations, we have never had a revolution. The goings on in the Post Office seem to have been aimed at and certainly achieved maintenance of the status quo, save only for an excruciating change of personnel.

Some time ago, there was a debate in the papers as to what brought the fire and brimstone down on Sodom. I am convinced that it was smugness, the sin against the Holy Ghost, the sin against which prophets in all generations have to go out to preach. It is to the credit of this great University and this great College that, in this century, three of your doctissimi, three of your Doctors have gone out to fight against and to confront that bourgeois smugness. I was going to say that they each came from a different cultural group, but I am not certain that that is so. One of them, a bright, promising boy, betrayed by life and destroyed by the gods, we still mourn. Another, a man of tremendous courage, at all times said the things that had to be said, even at cost to himself and it cost him a lot, but it was, so to speak, no trouble to him, because it was in his blood; his father and his mother were people of heroic stature. The third was he who, in his youth, called himself by the abrasive name of L.K. Emery, Abraham Jacob Leventhal.

Con Leventhal was associated in his youth with three gestures against the bourgeois. He was first of all involved in the magazine Tomorrow, edited by the young rebel Harry Stuart, who is still around, under the name of Francis Stuart, still fighting. Tomorrow published only two editions: the second came from that hotbed of revolution, Roebuck House, Clonskeagh. Leventhal was [9] also associated, editorially and as a contributor, with the famous Klaxon. I had two copies, but I’ve lost them, so I have no clear idea of the date! The third was the book-shop in Nassau street which I don’t remember. These three gestures were failures by the world’s standards, but what a disgrace to our society if they had not taken place!

At a certain stage of my life, I used to go to seminars which were of a great boringness, but were relieved, on some occasions, by the presence of a Swedish delegate, a handsome man who dressed very well and very frequently so that when one met him in the afternoon, the shirt and the tie and the suit he was wearing were not what he had been wearing in the morning and certainly not what he would wear at dinner, and when I think of him, I think of Sam Beckett and Con Leventhal, two fellows for whom French and German were not simply acquired tongues: one would say rather that the three languages of French, English and German were suits which they could change at will and as fast as any young Dartmouth cadet changing uniforms in his first year. Con Leventhal was twenty five years on the staff of Trinity College and had a great loyalty to the College, as can be seen in his writings, and I think particularly of his Trinity Monday Oration on George Darley. About a year ago, I sent him a photograph of the Front Square, which he was glad to receive: he spoke to me in reply about his many happy years in his rooms there. One thinks of him primarily as an expert in French literature, but he was also attached to the English Department and from his pen there came essays on Denis Florence McCarthy, the grandfather of the poet Ethna McCarthy, whom Con married en secondes noces. He wrote on Thomas Davis and he also wrote on George Darley, that Trinity Monday essay that I referred to a moment ago. It seems to me to be characteristic of Con Leventhal, of his sensibility and perception, in its sympathy for a talent that did not, perhaps, get its due from the world in general.

In reading Leventhal’s essay, I was reminded of but had not time to check on an essay of Thomas McDonagh’s in which he writes about what he called “the long Irish line”. I think McDonagh was the first to point out that there was something characteristic about that, and he mentioned in particular, I think “At the mid hour of night when stars are weeping I fly ...”.

Leventhal, in the Darley article, draws attention to a number of quatrains, from one of which I recall a line

“Down from the high cliffs, the rivulet is streaming ...”

Denis Johnston used that verse in The Old Lady Says No. That long line can also be found in the later Yeats, for instance in the poem which has the line

“In the long echoing streets the laughing dancers throng”

and perhaps this is the time to mention Con Leventhal’s association with the theatre. He would have been one of the frequenters of the Silver Slipper Club, a friend of Madam Bannard Cogley. He acted in one of Denis Johnston’s [10] plays, he was a member of the Dublin Drama League and a friend of Lennox Robinson and also, of course, he was a friend of Michael MacLiammóir and one recalls the article written only last year reviewing Enter a Goldfish, which was so witty, so touchingly written and so characteristic of Leventhal.

I recall also, and this is relevant in connection with what I said about the various cultures, that, when Leventhal left Trinity in 1963, a dinner was organised for him, I think by Professor Liam Ó Briain of Galway and by Hermann Good. It took place in the upper room in Jammet’s. It was a remarkable occasion. Austin Clarke was there and Bertie Rogers. Miss Harden Rogers was the only lady there and I am moved at this stage to say that, had it been a party where men and women were equally invited, there would have been many ladies there, because Con had the great joy, all his life, of being cherished by beautiful and talented women.

I know that Owen Sheehy Skeffington was at that dinner: Arland Ussher and David Greene were there. I imagine that Professor Arnuld, Victor Waddington and George Hetherington were there, but I can’t swear it. I think that I remember that Micheál MacLiammóir came late. Only death could have kept Seumas O’Sullivan, Philip Sayers, Brinsley MacNamara and my father from that party. The three circles had intersected and, walking around the peripheries, in his characteristic way, not friendly, not unfriendly, was a French boy who had gone to school in Belvedere and spoke French with a very Dublin accent, namely the patron, Louis Jammet.

But when I think of Con Leventhal I am always reminded of Charles Swann and I think in particular of the description of him by Madame de Guermantes towards the end of the almost impossibly splendid Côte de Guermantes. I think of that passage where Madame de Guermantes, like Oedipus but in no other way asks so many questions that she receives an answer that she did not wish to receive. Praising Swann’s qualities as a com­ panion, his sensibility and his perception, she asks him ’to accompany her and her dreadful husband on a voyage to Sicily in ten months’ time and, in trying to persuade him, she reveals that she is aware of the fact that he has already travelled to Venice with another lady last year and what she says I will have to read for you because I can’t remember it:

  Eh bien! vous ne dites pas si vous viendrez en Italie avec nous?
  Madame, je crois bien que ce ne sera pas possible.
  Eh bien, Mme de Montmorency a plus de chance. Vous avez été avec elle à Venice et à Vicente. Elle m’a dit qu’avec vous on voyait des choses qu’on ne verrait jamais sans ça, dont personne n’a jamais parlé, que vous lui avez montré des choses inouïes, et même, dans les choses connues, qu’elle a pu comprendre des détails devant qui, sans vous, elle aurait passé vingt fois sans jamais les remarquer. Décidément elle a été plus favorisée que nous.

And these are the qualities that Con Leventhal reveals in the articles which [11] he has written about Verlaine, Valery, Rimbaud, Eluard and of course on Joyce and Beckett. When he writes about Joyce and Beckett that is a very special type of writing, where there is much sympathy and much understanding. It is interesting too that, towards the end of his life, Leventhal had that distaste for Dublin which was characteristic of Joyce and Beckett also.

Throughout his life, Con Leventhal had conscientiously and consciously divested himself of many of the shibboleths which we cherish. He was deceived by none of the idols, least of all by the idols of the theatre. But when I think of Leventhal, I think also of a line of Ben Jonson which I read when I was young but have never since been able to find:

“A man may say that he hates his native land, but in his heart he knows it is not so”

and Leventhal would never have said anything so crude as that he hated his native land.

But to praise a man for his criticism is nothing: I think a man likes best to be known by his creative work. We don’t know what creative work of Leventhal’s remains unpublished, but we do know that he published in Hermathena some fine translations from the French, translations which to my mind have the quality of originals because they are so strong, because they are themselves poems. He translated Valery, Eluard, Supervielle and I would like to quote for you one very short example, a poem of Supervielle called Vivre:

Pour avoir mis le pied
Sur le Coeur de la nuit
Je suis un homme pris
Dans les rets étoilés
J’ignore le repos
Que connaissent les hommes
Et même mon sommeil
Est dévoré de ciel
Nudite de mes fours,
On t’a crucifiée;
Oiseaux de la foret
Dans Fair tiède, glares,
Ah! vous tombez des arbres

And here is the translation Living

I trod upon
the heart of night and was caught taut
in the starry toils [12]
I cannot rest
like other men; heaven
devours my sleep.
0 white days crucified! m the warm air
the wild birds drop
from the trees

I salute the bright living spirit of Con Leventhal!

Laudemus viros gloriosos
et parentes nostros in generations sua
multam gloriam fecit Dominus magnificentia sua a saeculo
dominantes in potestatibus suis
homines magni virtute et prudentia sua praediti
nuntiantes in dignitate prophetarum

This brings me back where I started, with the prophets! I am under orders to recite to you from that book of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus, which was rejected both by the Synagogue and by the Reformation. You will have found the Latin strange, in an accent that I am unable to change just for an afternoon. The English, to my mind, is even stranger; one wonders what it was like in the Koiné [Gk.], and one wonders also to what extent all religious reformations are purely linguistic.

[ The image also used for the front cover ]
Bookplate for A.J. Leventhal
Designed by Micheál MacLiammóir
(Catalogue Lot No. 78)

[13; End.]

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