Ignatius against the World

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I came upon John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the early Eighties, and was at once rather taken by its main protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. I had never come across such a repulsive hero.

Ignatius is 30, unemployed, slothful, hugely overweight, flatulent, conceited, dependent on, and absolutely horrid to, his maroon-haired mother, with whom he still lives in uptown New Orleans. He arrives on the first page – wham! – an enormous, colourful and disruptive creature in a bizarre outfit which he considers entirely sensible. It includes a green hunting cap with earflaps which

stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once . . . [and] prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius . . . [To him] the outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

We are only on page 2, but already I have grown fond of Ignatius, and I remain so throughout the book, despite his faults and his hypersensitive pyloric valve which closes at the least hint of stress and leads to chronic flatulence and bloating. Why am I not revolted by him? Because Toole writes about him so beautifully, with such a uniquely surprising turn of phrase and such great empathy. Perhaps this is because there is some of Toole in Ignatius. The modern world, for the most part, offends them both (Ignatius much prefers the medieval world of Boethius and lutes), they both have experience of work in a small, family-run factory and of selling food on the streets, and they both have an unusually close relationship with their mother.

Toole himself was born into a middle-class family in 1937 in New Orleans. His mother seems to have been intensely involved in his affairs from an early age,

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About the contributor

As well as writing Guardian columns, michele hanson has now broken out and written a memoir of her suburban childhood in the Fifties, What the Grown-ups Were Doing. She still lives with her two dogs and rather too many uninvited mice.

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