The Reading Room

Brendan Behan’s New York

Review of Brendan Behan and Paul Hogarth’s book…

Brendan Behan (1923-1964) the man many regard as one of Ireland’s greatest ever authors and poets collaborated on two books with the artist Paul Hogarth (1917-2001) and in Brendan Behan’s New York we find both artist and writer in formidable form despite Behan’s chronic health problems. For fans of Hogarth it is a tour de force in reportage sketching, Behan’s New York landscape must have fascinated Hogarth and his capture of the people, bars and buildings rank amongst some of his finest work.

Behan was, by the time of this and his other Hogarth collaboration Brendan Behan’s Island (1962) in the final throes of an alcohol-induced downhill spiral of diabetic comas and seizures, this book had to be dictated into a tape recorder, such was his inability to write or type for any prolonged periods.

Paul Hogarth described New York as a ‘lovable jungle which gives me a charge a minute’ and he spent much of 1962 and 1963 drawing some wonderfully evocative images of daily life on the streets, in the bars and factories as well as buildings representing America’s early history. According to Hogarth he was lucky to get into America and where it not for Behan’s popularity with one of the Irish-American CIA officers who interviewed Hogarth about his previous communist party involvement he might have been denied entry.

After working with Behan on their first book Hogarth vowed never to repeat the experience but such was the success of Brendan Behan’s Island that the publishers in both America and Britain pressured him into another outing. Whilst Hogarth was not a teetotaller his alcohol consumption was a fraction of Behan’s and one cannot imagine how he would have been able to produce the artwork he did had he been under the influence.

Behan’s description of the down and out’s of the city and their penchant for cheap, unrefined hard liquor reminds the reader of an alternative universe which exists in the underbelly of our major towns and cities. Behan moved freely amongst them, declaring his own alcohol consumption as near amateur compared to theirs.

But Behan could also move easily within other, more cerebral circles and describes his meeting Alan Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin and the invention of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Beat Generation’. Behan’s prose meanders swiftly as one would in a dictation and this variety of topics is well matched by Hogarth’s numerous sketches as he tries to keep pace with Behan’s dialogue. I love how Behan’s casual style is complemented by Hogarth who could be at once both intricate and seemingly carefree. At first glance his drawings seem almost easy but upon closer inspection the detail Hogarth gave to his pieces is quite stunning.

My final choice from this beautiful book is Hogarth’s drawing of the composer George Kleinsinger at his piano in his penthouse at the Hotel Chelsea. Behan describes how Kleinsinger kept an aquarium, three snakes and birds which were free to fly around his apartment at will.

If you can find a copy of this book it is worth buying, on closer inspection it would appear that America has more copies for sale than in the UK and Europe. It was a popular book in America on its release so non-Americans might have to be prepared to cast their net wider for a copy. Imagine the lives involved in the creation of this book if you will, two men paid to visit the sights of New York, one (Behan) already a resident and Hogarth just at the start of what would prove to be a long and prosperous career. It is a book full of memories and a way of life now seldom lived. It is a wonderful book indeed.

The life and bibliography of Paul Hogarth can be found here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s