Earlier this year, I had the chance to interview Alberto Manguel by email for the website Nineteen Questions. Mr. Manguel is one of my favourite writers, so it was quite an honour to be able to ask him about his work and opinions.
A bit of self-promotion today to mention that my review of Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth has been published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Puritan. You can read it here. The review is sort of a personal essay about space exploration and its perception in popular culture, as well as a closer look at Hadfield’s book and how I think he revolutionized how we perceive the value of space exploration. All my thanks to Spencer and Tyler, the editors of The Puritan, who not only accepted my piece but also took the time to read it carefully and suggest many edits that made it much stronger.
If I had more time and space—and if it really mattered—I would go into an in-depth description of the differences between the US and Canadian covers of Hadfield’s books. I find it fascinating because they’re almost identical, but I think the minor differences are very telling of some cultural concerns: adding the image of Chris Hadfield playing guitar in the corner, adding his military title in front of his name, adding the subtitle. And even, if you look attentively, the fact that you can’t see the face of the astronaut on the American cover because his golden visor is pulled down. At least they kept the Canadian flag on his arm!
In which our blogger researches for his own fiction by reading fiction about real events, and thereby discovers a big, important, difficult book.
In case you didn’t know, I’ve been busy this year writing a novel largely about a nationalist terrorist cell in Montréal, and so I did a bit of research into the FLQ and the October crisis, which is one of the darkest chapter’s in Québec’s history. During the 60s a number of leftist terrorist organizations including the Front de libération du Québec set off some bombs in and around Montréal. In October 1970 one of the FLQ cells abducted James Cross, a British diplomat, whom they would hold hostage until late December. A few days later, a second FLQ cell kidnapped Québec’s vice-prime minister, Pierre Laporte, whose body was left a week later in the trunk of a car. Meanwhile, the Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau called upon the War Measures act, which allowed the suspension of the Habeas Corpus and resulted in the occupation of parts of Québec by the Canadian army and over 500 unquestioned arrests of left-leaning intellectuals and activitists of the time.
It was a sordid affair, and one that is summarily studied by anyone who grew up in Québec. Yet it’s also a historical event that’s been largely written in stone: there’s an accepted version, and it doesn’t get all that questioned, despite the fact that there are some obvious holes in it. One of the big questions remaining has to do with how much the police knew before and during the events of the October Crisis, what they did do and didn’t do, and how well they had infiltrated the terrorist’s network.
In his novel La constellation du Lynx, which was translated last year by Wayne Grady under the more prosaic English title October 1970, Louis Hammelin uses fiction to explore the historical events of the October crisis. His narrative is wide ranging, but he focuses mainly on three characters: Richard Godefroid, one of the terrorists back in the 70s (renamed, but very much inspired by one of the real-life terrorists who abducted Pierre Laporte); Samuel Niholo, a present day writer and journalist type who’s bent upon finding the truth about what really happened in 1970 (and, of course, a kind of foil for the writer himself); and the fictional Chevalier Branlequeue (a salacious pun that’s rather hard to translate), who acts as a connecting agent to the plot’s different strands as he was one of Richard Godefroid’s teachers, one of the victims of the rounds of arrest during the october crisis, a mediator between the police and the terrorists during the crisis, and finally, much later, the literature professors who leads Samuel (and a group of other beer-drinking bachelor students) on the trail of the truth about October, 1970.
Hammelin’s book, something of a doorstopper and a very complex achievement in terms of both form and content, is hard going at first. The chapters are short, but the novel takes a polyphonic—if not kaleidoscopic—approach to its story, following almost of all its characters, from the most minor to the most important, and moving almost at random between different time periods and places. For a few pages we’re in the Jordan desert where a Québecois journalist meets two FLQ terrorists receiving guerrilla training with feyadeens (this really happened, by the way), then we’re flying a plane over the suburbs of Montreal with a Canadian army colonel. Eventually, with a little bit of wikipedia searching on the details of the real story, and a better grasp on who everyone is, the novel comes together and the different points of view start to form a knotty mass that is both the question at the heart of the novel an a multiple-attempt to answer it: what really happened that fall?
After the halfway mark, and thanks mostly to Hammelin having focalized a large part of the story through the perspective of Sam Nihilo, his young journalist, the novel speeds up and achieves the necessary epiphany when he meets up with the old terrorist, Godefroid, in Mexico, before fading out again with a series of one-page chapters from a disintegrating number of other perspectives. The effect is actually quite nice, and one sees that, when dealing with a history so shadowy and already, supposedly, well-understood and shelved for good, Hammelin’s best solution was indeed to break apart his novel’s form and chronology, dig through the facts in an apparently haphazard way with the mining pick of his hard, lyrical prose.
So, while I accept the formal deconstruction—the broken chronology, shifting perspectives and so on—the one criticism I had was that many of the short sections that explore varying points of view often fall a little flat because nothing really happens in them. The novel is largely obsessed with animals (especially lynxes, but many others, such as a snowy owl, make appearances), and what actually goes on in many sections is just someone watching a wild animal. This is very nice thematically, and creates a kind of visual pattern that gets cyclically repeated throughout the book, increasing the depth of its texture, but at the same time I yearned for these sections to operate a little more powerfully on other levels. In other words, I wanted them to be more straightforward in pushing the story forward, instead of merely interrupting the story and making it more complicated and half-hidden by giving us a glimpse into someone’s mind, a bit of a conversation. But then, I hesitate to make even that criticism, because La constellation du Lynx is an important book that takes a lot of risks, and I’d much rather a loud book that takes risks and succeeds in a messy way than a neat, timid little book that does what it does well, but stays too clearly within the margins. And so, Louis Hammelin, I salute you.
We continue with the great catch up and skip ahead a little bit by not mentioning a couple of books I don’t want to discuss here, and talking instead about Adam Gopnik’s beautiful book Winter. But first, news! It has been announced that two British writers I greatly admire, David Mitchell and Ian McEwan, are both coming out with new novels this September. This is extremely exciting, as I’m a big fan of both David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet surprised and engrossed me, Cloud Atlas blew my mind, and Black Swan Green broke my heart) while Ian McEwan is one of those writers whom I got into when I was younger and had a crush on Keira Knightley and now feel obliged to read all of his new books and work my way through his backlog (which is great fun, as he’s brilliant). Mitchell’s new novel is called The Bone Clocks, Ian McEwan’s is called The Children’s Act. So two things to look forward to.
Adam Gopnik’s Winter came into my hands when I saw its lovely white spine pop out in a local second hand bookstore here in Vancouver. I bought it at the end of the summer and read it in the fall, which is an odd time to have read it because usually in the fall you’re kind of dreading the season to come. However, since in Vancouver there is no winter as I’m used to them in Montreal, it was thrilling to read about the season I would only get a glimpse of over the holidays, and from an author who also grew up in Montreal. (As it turns out, I would get more than a glimpse of winter over the break—temperatures reached -45 degrees celsius in early January when I was there, it was fucking awful.)
Gopnik’s book is part of the CBC Massey Lecture series, which is quite a big deal here in Canada (illustrious people like Alberto Manguel and Ronald Wright and Doris Lessing have all given then). The deal is that the writers give a number of lectures around a certain theme, and then those lectures get turned into a book. Gopnik explores the theme of Winter, clustering his essay around five big ideas of the season: Romantic Winter (about the early to late modern artistic and ideological interpretations of winter), Radical Winter (mainly about polar expeditions), Recuperative Winter (about the holidays), Recreational Winter (about Hockey, which Gopnik writes about majestically), and Remembering Winter (about how we deal with the season today, how we remember it, and also about Montreal and its underground city).
The book is very good, and I found it a charming and, sometimes, even an engrossing read. But then, I am a sucker for personal essays, when writers meld personal experience and anecdote with reflections about art and ideas. Oddly enough, I just came across an extremely negative review of Winter at a blog I like, Tales from the Reading Room. The blogger there hated the book and just couldn’t get into it. I see her point, that you sometimes feel like you’re sort of wading through a muck of half-formed ideas and concepts with Gopnik, while he skims over swathes of knowledge and goes in circles or else jumps from one topic to the next, as if he were slightly tipsy. There is a little bit of that, but to me that’s part of the pleasure of the personal essay—the breadth reached by having the speaker rambling on, as if he were sitting by the fire, chatting amiably, glass of wine in hand. By the way, that’s exactly how Gopnik intended the book to be—before he gave the official Massey lectures, he began by jotting down some notes and giving them to family and friends in the comfort and intimacy of his own home. To me, he isn’t quite as crisp a stylist and as fine a thinker as my favourite personal essayist, Anne Fadiman, but Winter was still a delight.
Gopnik, by the way, is a writer I’m very excited to read more of. He had a wonderful piece about bread in a recent New Yorker food-themed issue, in which he tells some hilarious anecdotes about his parents. After reading that, I ordered his book about Paris, Paris to the Moon, and these days I read the essays in that book to G. before going to bed. We’re both enjoying it a lot.
Although I’d seen his books (they all have gorgeous covers in English) and heard about his genius before, writer Anakana Schofield first got me into César Aira last summer when I interviewed her for PRISM international. Upon her recommendation, I went me to the bookstore and got myself a beautiful copy of The Literary Conference. What a read!
Aira, in case you’ve never heard of him, is an Argentine writer, very much in line with his fabulist predecessors (read: Borges), who writes novella-sized stories that are always published in single, thin volumes. He’s written around 80 of them, and in Argentina he likes to have them published by different independent presses, which means that apparently some of his titles are actually very hard to find. The other thing one should know is that Aira supposedly doesn’t revise his stories: as he writes them, he tries to keep going as much as possible, which can mean writing his way out of dead ends instead of tracking back to avoid getting stuck. That’s probably where many of the fantastical elements come into his stories.
In the first part of The Literary Conference, the narrator, a mad scientist who may or may not be Aira himself, solves the age-old enigma of the so-called Macuto Line, and becomes rich by finding the ancient treasure buried in the sea. If that doesn’t get you scratching your head, the rest of the book will—it will also probably make you smile with delight, and potentially roar with laughter. The narrator then goes to a literary conference in Venezuela, where his goal is to clone Carlos Fuentes… Except the cloned insect-thing he sends to take Fuentes’ DNA lands on the literary man’s tie instead, and things go really bad when gigantic blue worms descend on the city. To find out who the narrator—and Aira himself—gets out of this wild impasse, you’ll just have to read the book yourself.
The Literary Conference is a mad romp, and it was incredible fun to read. It’s rare that you discover a writer whose work seems so completely fresh. So naturally I looked for more Aira, and eventually purchased another of his books, Varamo, which I read in the late summer (remember, last week we were on The Queen Bee of Tuscany and I was searching for a new apartment). I’d heard good things about Varamo in The Millions but I have to say that I didn’t find as much delight in this one as I had in The Literary Conference. Mostly it was the style, which I found more convoluted, more opaque. Varamo is written in a formal, slightly grinding third person, which is apparently Aira’s preferred narrative voice, whereas The Literary Conference is in a buoyant and electric first person.
Where Varamo succeeds is in its clever premise: the eponymous character is a 50 year-old civil servant in Panama, who embalms animals in his free time, and finds himself with counterfeit money at the very beginning of the book and ends the story—as we are told at it very beginning—by writing a poem, which will become a masterpiece of Central American poetry (Varamo never wrote a line of verse in his life before that moment). The novella’s execution, however, just didn’t grab me as hard as my first Aira did.
Aira is becoming increasingly popular in English, and every year more of his books get translated and are always given beautiful covers. I look forward to exploring more his titles in the future—I’ll keep you posted.
Four weeks (time flies!!) into our catch-up of lost months, this series of posts has now acquired an ugly acronym (TGCU) while our writer delves into non-fiction…
I read about Ben Downing’s biography of Janet Ross, unfortunately titled Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross, in The New York Review of Books over the summer, and decided the book under review was exactly the kind of thing I was looking to read and pass the time with as the long summer days were coming to an end. It was August in Vancouver, I had returned to the West Coast after a month spent in Montréal, and I was desperately looking for a new apartment to move in with my girlfriend, who was arriving imminently after a summer spent digging in the Middle East. I was also a little bored and often went down to do laps at the wonderful Kitsilano pool—a gigantic, exterior, heated saltwater pool overlooking the Sea and the city and Stanley park.
I ordered the book and read it joyfully, in long draughts sitting on a bench by Kitsilano beach or in the breezy living room I was about to leave. Janet Ross, by the way, is an absolutely fascinating character, who is mostly famous for her beautiful home near Florence called Poggio Gherardo, where she lived and wrote histories, cookbooks, translations, and autobiographies from the 1880s to the early 20th century. Having never read anything about her before, and having always loved things like British literati, the fin de siècle, and Tuscany, the book was a good fit.
Janet Ross was especially fascinating to me because of the kind of people she was connected to. Ross was a British exilée, who was forced to live in Italy because she couldn’t afford England. She hosted a kind of salon in her Florentine villa, and received some of the most brilliant minds of her generation, who were either expats living in Italy or else traveling on their Grand Tour. Downing’s book, while focusing on Janet Ross, mostly uses her as an excuse to explore an entire era of thinkers and writers and artists and, more specifically, the incredible population of exiled Englishman who called Florence home before WWI: people like Bernard Berenson, John Addington Symonds, and Mark Twain (also, mind you, all people you’re bound to read regularly about in the NYRB). At times, however, Downing’s prose plods on a little awkwardly as he ploughs through the names and parenthetical biographies of Ross’ eminent contemporaries—sometimes one wishes he’d just gone on and written a book about Florence’s English community, instead of trying to pin down Janet Ross’s character which, as it turns out, wasn’t always very gay.
Anyway, it was a delightful read. One of the parts that struck me the most was the life story of Janet Ross’ mother, Lucie Duff-Gordon, a remarkable Victorian woman, a translator and intellectual in her own right who also frequented many of the brightest minds of her day (including the parents of John Stuart Mill) and spent the end of her life in Luxor, Egypt. There, she had many adventures, observed many of the interesting customs around her, and gained the respect of the locals. What really gripped me about Downing’s book was that it teemed with the life of so many fascinating individuals, who were both the products of their time, and yet somehow went far beyond its boundaries.
I should mention that I urged G. to read Queen Bee of Tuscany when she finally did arrive in Vancouver (I’d found us a nice, newly renovated ground floor suite just two blocks away from my old apartment). She loved our apartment but hated the book, which she finished almost reluctantly; she found it too cursory in content and too breathless and inelegant in form. The issue may have been that she was seeking depth where the book offers more breadth—but I would still recommend this book if the subject interests you. Onwards!
James Salter is the kind of writer whose name you hear every once in a while, like say Richard Ford, or George Saunders before he became a legit literary phenomenon this year, or Doris Lessing, for that matter, before she passed away. What people refer to weakly as a “writer’s writer,” which is a polite way of saying: “an excellent writer who’s a bit of an open secret, who gets amazing reviews and a lot of recognition and often gets named on lists of inspirations, but doesn’t sell nearly as much as she should, and might even have a hard time getting published.” Hilary Mantel was in that category until she won the Booker for Wolf Hall and her career got catapulted into the stratosphere.
So I’d seen James Salter mentioned here and there, and knew about his seminal work, the 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. But the first time I got to read anything of his was in that collection of stories that The Paris Review published last year: Object Lessons. Dave Eggers chose Salter’s story Bangkok (which you can read in full here), a short, brilliant story about two lovers who meet again years after their separation—the woman is a real bitch and the story crackles deliciously with awkward humour, incorrectness, and a kind of sizzling sexual tension. It’s an excellent story, and Salter has written many more (like “Last Night,” which you can read online on the New Yorker’s website.) Salter was also in the news last summer because he published a new book, All That Is, which was quite a feat considering he’s nearly 90 years old.
So I finally picked up Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which was Salter’s third novel. I’ll put it simply, as Salter would in his spare writer’s voice: this book is a masterpiece. It’s written in a dazzling, carefully crafted prose, and creates one of the deepest and most enthralling textures I’ve ever felt in a novel—all with an extreme level of subtlety. Plus, it’s also certainly one of the sexiest books I’ve ever read; it tackles the subject head on (still pretty edgy in 1967) and offers some of the most romantic, complicated, poignant, and well-written sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Plus, there are loads of them, so this novel is really a masterclass in sex writing.
But what I liked the most about A Sport and a Pastime was the originality of its narrator. Although the novel, which is clearly situated in the tradition of American literature set in France, tells the story of the (mostly sexual) love affair between a young American and a beautiful but innocent young French girl, the story is told by another American young man, a kind of voyeur who stands at the edge of the main action, in a big lonely house he’s rented in the country. The novel’s singular beauty and melancholy rests on this shadowy point of view; the key to the novel is that most, or perhaps all of the descriptions of the scenes between Anne-Marie and Philip Dean are pure fantasy, created in the aroused mind of our narrator. And so the book is a beautiful elegy of life and love, but also solitude and old Europe. It’s a wonderful read: an absolute must.
In which I continue to catch up lost time by making my way down the list of books read.
I’m actually cheating and jumping ahead a little. After John le Carré’s Smiley’s People I read Hubert Aquin’s Trou de mémoire (an excellent, heady, overwrought, mindblowing novel) which, alas, I found too complicated to write about here (Nabokov’s Pale Fire came out while Aquin was writing Trou de mémoire, and when Aquin read it he decided he would outdo Nabokov—so I’ll let you imagine how many layers of narrative trickery there are in his book). Then I wolfed down Allan Moore’s masterpiece of dystopian fiction V for Vendetta, which I have really nothing to say about other than: it’s good. I found the competent world building, moral complexity, and intriguing characters (especially minor ones) that had initially appealed to me in The Watchmen, and I thought the artwork was great, although I have to agree with Moore: I could’ve easily done without the washed out, pastel colouring.
So, moving on down, we have Alice Oswald’s strange and wonderful book of poetry Memorial, which I bought after hearing Oswald read from it at World Book Night last year. Oswald calls Memorial an “excavation” of Homer’s Iliad—it’s an homage to Greek epic that unearths and honours Homer’s language by focusing on the dozens of the characters who die in it. Oswald lists the names of the dead, sometimes building a small narrative around a certain character, or giving us some information about where he came from, and picks up Homer’s famous metaphors, puncturing her way through them, like a needle threading through fabric, to give them new life or a whirl into the 21st century. She works in an unfussy language, sharp and modern and intense, and uses repetition of smaller sections to hammer down her images. The result is at once hypnotic and poignant, and even moving. As it goes on, the names and the metaphors start to accumulate and build up more strength, until Oswald hurtles you, expertly, towards the inevitable end. And yes, somehow Oswald manages a complete, distilled version of the Iliad in a poem that’s somehow both strong and delicate, both a translation and a completely original work.
Bonus content: here’s Oswald reading from Memorial
Well, it’s been an intense last 6 months, and I’ve been a very bad blogger. Not a word, I know: zilch, nada, and so on. And don’t think I didn’t feel bad about it, either. Wracked with guilt, I was—to use one of my favourite clichés. I could blame it on my MFA thesis, on my gig as the online editor for PRISM international… I could find all kinds of excuses, but I won’t. Anyway, I hope you’re not too angry, but it doesn’t matter either way because I know you’ll forgive me; I’m far from being the first or last blogger to go on an unexpected hiatus.
More importantly: did you miss me? I hope you did, because I’m back with a vengeance, and I’ve devised a devilish plan to get us right through to the end of my school year (and my MFA—after that, I guess I’ll have to hunker down and force myself to write about things as they happen). That’s right, I haven’t given up on you yet! Because during all this time I was gone, I wasn’t blogging, but I was reading, you see. Boy, was I ever reading. Okay, I wasn’t reading as much as I should’ve, but I still have a list of books, 20 or so, that I’ve read since last summer and haven’t done anything with essay-wise, and I hereby promise to write a short, blurby review of one of these books every week. Let’s say it’s always going to happen on Sundays, just so you know you have something to look forward to.
And, before we start with our first catch up review, I just want to say it’s been a really terrific last six months in the literary world, and I’m sorry not to have been part of the conversation. I’m very pleased because it’s been a tremendous year for women: Alice Munro (my favourite, as you know) winning the Nobel, Lynn Coady winning the Giller here in Canada, Eleanor Catton getting the Booker (for a very manly book, but still)—plus Rachel Kushner and Donna Tartt (the latter especially) getting all this attention for their new novels. I know there’s still a lot to do to give women the space they deserve in literary arts, but after seeing female writers shine so much recently, the future does seem a bit brighter.
It’s also hard to believe we’ve lost two of our strongest female voices in the last few months: Doris Lessing (whom I wrote about here) and, more recently, Mavis Gallant (whom I wrote about here). These brilliant, phenomenal women will be sorely missed and, I hope, relentlessly honoured and read.
There’s an added difficulty to what I’m doing now—added to the fact that I’m going to start by discussing books that I read a while back—and it’s that I don’t have immediate access to most of these books; they’re all back home in Montreal and I’m here in Vancouver. But anyway, not having a given book in my hand has never stopped me from discussing it before!
I see on my list here that the book I read after Barney’s Version was Smiley’s People. I even remember that I started le Carré’s book on the same day I finished Richler’s; it was during a nice, sunny weekend at the cottage; I just dropped the first and picked the other one up.
I’d initially planned on dealing with le Carré in an elaborate post on this blog back in August, talking about how my father had first talked to me about George Smiley some years ago, on a cycling trip in Niagara, Ontario. As we cycled side by side and burned under the sun, my father told me the thrilling story of George Smiley and his doomed quest to find the mole hiding inside MI5, and how much he’d enjoyed both the book and the 80s BBC series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley (the cycling trip in question seemed to pull back all his memories for the first time in years; he subsequently ordered the DVD box set of the BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries and we both watched it with relish). This was some years before the wonderful movie starring Gary Oldman and directed by Tomas Alfredson. Anyway, I never got around to writing that post so I might as well write about Smiley’s People now.
I have to admit first of all that I’ve never actually read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—the only other le Carré I’d read before this was The Constant Gardner, in high school, and I’d found it a little tedious although not uninteresting. What I found really interesting about Smiley’s People was the atmosphere, the thickness of it. Even now, without the book at hand, I can recall quite vividly the different settings: the London park where the initial murder occurs, the dreary Paris apartment where the old Russian émigrée waits for her fate, the wet dreary Hamburg where Smiley’s car gets attacked by gipsy boys, the final moments in snowy Berlin when Smiley faces the true meaning of victory and defeat.
The other brilliant thing about Smiley’s People is that it’s not really about the surprise of how things will end, or even how that end will come about—it’s about seeing how George Smiley will react along the way: what he will do and say and, especially, not do and not say. In effect, Smiley is more or less given all the information he needs to solve the mystery at the centre of the book and catch Karla; what’s fascinating is seeing him dreading what might happen, utilizing all of his skills as a spy, and managing his agents and old friends along the way. My favourite passage in the novel is near the end, when Smiley meets Karla’s henchman, Grigoriev, whom Smiley needs to use to get to Karla through Karla’s daughter (secretly kept in a Swiss nunnery). Le Carré does a neat trick where, instead of keeping the narrative voice quite close to Smiley’s consciousness, he pulls us back from the moment and explains how the interview later became legend in the circus*, and how other agents refer to it later, what they say happened, etc.—it’s as if the novel were narrated from the circus itself, or its communal consciousness.
Le Carré doesn’t have the reputation he has based on facility or luck or, god forbid, a Dan Brownian ease with urging the reader to turn the page. There is an intelligence, a complexity, a deliberateness, and a despondent form of wisdom behind his stories that is undeniable. Le Carré invented the espionage genre as we know it today, and he is a expert at deploying its tropes: exchanges of information, blurry old photographic evidence, the stress of being under watch, visits to old informants, that obliqueness of language that comes when people’s lives are in danger—all the elements are there for a grand time in the company of men and women who would be either incredibly dull or incredibly scary in real life, and yet who are the finest to be with in a work of fiction. Only, of course, in the hands of a master.
*In case you don’t know, “the circus” is what le Carré calls the British secret service in his novels; the equivalent of “The Company” in Robert Litell’s eponymous novel.
This review was originally published on the PRISM international blog.
The Irish author Kevin Barry recently appeared onto the screen of my literary radar, and then I wondered how it was possible that I’d never taken notice of him before. From one day to the next, I went from having never heard his name to thinking of him as a literary superstar. My hunch is that this was true of most readers when Barry won the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin award (as far as I know, the most generous prize awarded for a single book) for his first novel, City of Bohane. By the time he won the prize, he’d already published a new collection of short fiction, Dark Lies the Isle, to critical acclaim.
I’m a fan of Irish short stories and I was pretty excited to discover a new contemporary Irish writer who seemed to put a lot of emphasis on his craft (Barry says he finishes all of the stories he begins to write, but only ends up being happy enough with one or two in ten of them to send them out—here’s a writer who’s not afraid to hold back what isn’t up to his own standards). Instead of going for the two later books, however, I got my hands on Barry’s first collection of stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, which has now been reissued but was originally published by a small Dublin press and garnered some attention when it won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature back in 2007.
What characterizes Barry’s fiction most is his phenomenal play with language. He has a beautiful way with words, and tells his stories with a dark veneer of sheer, unequivocal lyricism. He’s especially good at describing setting, which is often small Irish towns. “Atlantic City,” the collection’s first story, opens with a paragraph dripping with the hazy uncomfortableness of hot summer weather:
A July evening, after a tar-melter of a day, and Broad Street was quiet and muffled with summer, the entire town was dozy with summer, and even as the summer peaked so it began to fade. Dogs didn’t know what had hit them. They walked around with their tongues hanging out and their eyes rolling and they lapped forlornly at the drains. The old were anxious, too: they twitched the curtains to look up the hills, and flapped themselves with copies of the RTE Guide to make a parlour breeze. Later, after dark, the bars would be giddy with lager drinkers, but it was early yet, and Broad Street was bare and peaceful in the blue evening.
Drinking makes up a large part of Barry’s collection, and while the author is mostly interested in familiar kinds of people—young boys and girls drinking, old couples exploring other partners, a couple of middle-aged women trying to sleep with a good-looking hiker, a young woman running away from home on a train, a couple of small-town alcoholics eager for the company of a third drinking partner—he isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of added strangeness to his stories. In “Last Days of the Buffalo,” a peaceful giant can tell when a person was born and how they’ll die with the touch of a hand; in “See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown,” a man wakes up on a bus with six hundred euro in cash and no memory of who he is, and yet enters a tired life as chip-shop owner with ease; in “Burn the Bad Lamp,” the owner of an antique shop summons a genie by rubbing a lamp and asks for a good singing voice, a wish that cannot be granted immediately. In another context, some of these might be labelled as magical realism. Experimentation with form and voice also leads Barry into unusual territory that feels vibrant and new, as in “Party at Helen’s,” where the reader gets a glimpse, in turn, inside the heads of all the guests at a Saturday night party in Galway, like a kind of narrative carousel.
There is also a lot of tenderness and humour in these brave stories. The last one in the collection, “Penguins,” is told from the point of view of a flight attendant during an emergency landing on a Greenland ice field. The recognizable hilarity of “isthisthechicken isthisthechicken isthisthe… chicken???” and “mudwater coffee” make way to even greater (although less recognizable) hilarity when it turns out the “official strategy in these situations” is for the passengers to huddle around in concentric circles and shuffle a little from side to side to stay warm—like penguins. With no food, the attendants pass out mini bottles of alcohol, and everyone is drunk by the time the rescue snowmobiles arrive. Two of the passengers are dead by then, which is, apparently, “an amazing result.”
The truly amazing result in Barry’s early stories is his ability to summon these little kingdoms in just a few pages, and make them ring with their own energy, vibrant and unique. Kevin Barry is a fine writer whose ascension you don’t want to miss.