A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

The book I’ve read the most this year is Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño. I read a few pages from it every morning before I crawl across the floor to my desk. It’s Bolaño distilled. It’s a crime story, a death story, a sex story, a love story, but always it refuses to pick up its narrative threads. It never binds. Instead it spins out. It is pure expression. I think Bolaño is the most important guide for fiction writers of this era; in fact, he is a kind of spirit-guide—he shows us what we don’t have to do anymore. The note of his perception rings utterly true on every line. And even in translation his sentences have such a glamorous charge to them.

When night falls, I crawl back across the floor, to the fireside, where this year I’ve been mooning constantly over A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. It is hugely consoling to see the way she constantly twists on the wires of doubt; she is dismayed by doubt at her own ability, on a daily basis, but also she is strangely enraptured by this same doubt—it fortifies her. You can see her thinking: if I’m worried, that means I must be working. She comes across in places as a desperate old snob but she’s of her era, and as often she seems a really gorgeous person. And I’d personally forgive her a murder for prose like this:
Thursday, August 18th 1921 – … and what I wouldn’t give to be coming through Firle woods, dirty and hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired and the brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane and cool, and ripe for the morrow’s task.
Here in Ireland, if the short story doesn’t get an almighty kick up the arse about every five years or so, it tends to melt down into puddles of lyric reverie. Fortunately, this year was a good, spiky and raucous one—there were some fabulous collections, and most of them came from the small, indie Irish presses. Three I admired: The History of Magpies by Desmond Hogan (Lilliput Press), a witness text by one of our finest prose stylists that peels away the layers to reveal the true, contemporary Ireland, in all its melancholy, gaudiness, and shabby grandeur; Levitation by Sean O’Reilly (Stinging Fly Press), a memorable return from a writer of fierce commitment, and a collection that constantly questions the story as form; and Room Little Darker (New Island Press), a miraculous debut from June Caldwell, whose every sentence roars that she is the real, darkly-comic deal.

Finally, it is conceivable that Virgina Woolf is back, and this time she’s a man—Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a portrait of an English rural community that’s quiet on the surface, measured in its structure, but astonishing in its effect, and his sentences have a truly Woolfian uncanniness and grace to them. It’s an absolutely beautiful novel.

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A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

I gurgled and frothed with sheer animal pleasure all the way through My Lunches with Orson (Metropolitan Books), a transcript of taped conversations between Orson Welles and his friend Henry Jaglom, made over elaborate lunches, in Los Angeles, in the early 1980s, and in which the great director gossiped with magnificent bitchiness about the stars he had known, and wedded, and bedded, and elaborated on the fineries of his craft, and gave masterclasses in story and structure, and talked about poodles, sauces, politics, and poems, and much else besides, and in fact gave the final, incontrovertible evidence that his was one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century. And also one of the funniest. A lesser-known fact: Orson made his breakthrough in Ireland, as a handsome corn-fed teen, in the early 1930s, when he acted for the legendary Michael Mac Liammoir’s company at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and he confesses in this book that he went on to nourish a life-long hatred of the Irish people, most especially Irish-Americans. Choice anecdote: one day, during a break in rehearsals, Orson asked Michael to give the defining characteristic, in a single word, without thinking too hard about it, of the Irish race, and Michael immediately responded with “malice.” I defy anyone not to read this wonderful book in a sitting.

Speaking of Ireland, the novel Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack has stealthily been developing a cult reputation there since its initial publication in 2005, and this year it finally got an American release through the good offices of Soho Press. This is the near-future story of JJ O’Malley, a kid adopted from a Romanian orphanage who grows up in the west of Ireland and there submits to trials on an experimental prison ship in Killary harbor, aboard which the inmates are induced into coma states to cut down on costs. McCormack is the bastard love-child of John McGahern and JG Ballard, and this is a brilliant book.

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