The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.
Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.
TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?
KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.
TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?
KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.
TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?
KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.
TM: My father’s hometown!
KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.
TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.
TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?
KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”
TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.
KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.
TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.
KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.
TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.
KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.
TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.
KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.
TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?
KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.
TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?
KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.
TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.
KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.
TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.
KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.
TM: How old are you now?
KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.
It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.
TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?
KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.
Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.
I am a chaotic reader. Is there a hidden logic in my scattered interests? Whenever somebody asks me about my recent reading, the first temptation is to discard the question with a pedantic answer: “I reread Ulysses.” Truth is, I only read Ulysses once, some 30-odd years ago.
This year, however, I returned to a major classic to teach a seminar. The Spanish-born Mexican poet Tomás Segovia achieved a new and astonishing rendition of Hamlet. One of the great side effects of translators is that they can renew a masterpiece. You Americans can have a “new” Don Quixote, and we Mexicans can have a “new” Hamlet. Segovia, who died in 2011, was a great poet. He translated some hundred books. His shadow boxing for Hamlet was the Spanish version of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. After such a titanic feat, he approached Shakespeare’s play with special attention to the music of words. On the rule, translators try to deliver the same content in a different language. But this not always includes finding an equivalent to the sound of words. Each language has its own rhythm, its own metric. Segovia translated Shakespeare “as if” he was using the rhythmic stanzas of, lets say, Gonzalo de Berceo. The outcome is awesome, both refreshing and loyal to the original poetic intention: the musical flow of English assumes the flow of Spanish.
Translation forces you to achieve a paradox. Obeying the primal message means to adapt it to your own culture. Literal translations are terrible. In order to achieve a genuine literary effect, you have to change some things. A very modest example: in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare speaks of the nine lives of a cat. For a mysterious reason in Spanish, cats have just seven lives. Two lives have to be lost in translation in order to sound natural in my language. Nine-life cats aren’t convincing in this poor part of the world.
Aside from Hamlet, I read other books. I don’t want to boast with a list nobody can fact-check. Suffice it to say that I embarked on a psychedelic trip. I am writing a play on Timothy Leary’s sojourn in Mexico. When he was expelled from Harvard, he came to Mexico and founded a kind of Club Med of the mind at the Catalina Hotel in Zihuatanejo. In the company of some 30 followers he organized sessions to enhance human perception. This attracted attention from the Mexican and American authorities (allegedly, an FBI agent took part in the sessions). Leary was approached by Mexican politicians and this lead to a very interesting exchange. According to Leary, Mexico had a great chance to become “the psychedelic Switzerland,” the haven of chemical recreational drugs. Mexico had the opportunity to legalize drugs and control them, following the example of the vernacular Indian communities. Otherwise the whole business would be run by the drug lords, as it eventually happened.
My play takes place at the Catalina Hotel in Zihuatanejo in those experimental days. I read the catalog of the De Young Museum about the Summer of Love exhibition, the novel The Girls by Emma Cline, the collection of essays Leary on Drugs, Leary’s biography Flashbacks, The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin, Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield, and reread Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Island and The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, among other stuff.
I read other books with no cannibalizing intentions. One of them: the formidable Cowboys’ Grave, by my late friend Roberto Bolaño. It was published in 2017, 13 years after his departure. I remember the sad farewell I attended at Les Corts crematory in Barcelona, in 2003. Who could have said that so many years later Roberto would still be the most productive writer of my generation?
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Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In a holiday-themed installment that’s sure to become an instant classic of weekly Internet shows sponsored by literary websites, Janet and Michael celebrate the end of the year the way they always have: with trivia and regret.
Discussed in this episode: tours de force, Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Constance by Patrick McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, Woody Allen, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Benedict Cumberbatch, emoji, Guns N’ Roses, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, regrets, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Jeff VanderMeer, The Fever by Megan Abbott, minor traffic incidents.
Discussed in this episode, but cut for time: Guy Clark, Jason Diamond, Emmylou Harris, the city of Memphis, cricket bats, Oy, I’m Right Knackered, Innit? by Zadie Smith, Gerald Ford, whiskers on kittens, cream-colored ponies, snowflakes.
Not discussed in this episode: “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger. But why not?
Feeling overwhelmed by a profound sense of inadequacy brought on by the growing list of “Before You Die” lists, I recently hunted down a book that I suspect may have started it all – one that, at least, surely inspired the authors of books like A Lifetime Reading Plan and Book Lust.
The List of Books: A library of over 3,000 works was published in 1981 by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. It’s a slim volume with an unusual page configuration — more than twice as tall as it is wide. In a scant 159 pages, Raphael and McLeish list more than 3,000 titles grouped into 44 categories, mostly non-fiction, with allowances made for drama, poetry, and novels. The intent, in their own words, was to design “an imaginary library … in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and inspiration, art and amusement.”
Back in the 1980s, I borrowed this book from the library a lot. I always meant to buy it. For whatever reason, the book never saw a third printing, so it disappeared from brick and mortar bookstores (dozens are available on Amazon for a penny) and I forgot about it. It last rolled off the press in 1988 — so long ago that one could read the “newest” titles recommended by the authors and likely not find a single reference to the Internet.
What sets The List apart from its younger cousins are the thirteen Michelin Guide-type symbols (a magnifying glass, an American flag, an armchair, etc.) that Raphael and McLeish used to flag titles as (for example) a “major masterpiece,” a “seminal work that changed our thinking,” “a particular pleasure to read,” and so on. Some are “recommended for beginners on the subject” while more advanced volumes are deemed “difficult, worth preserving.”
These symbols of literary merit are liberally scattered throughout. Many titles have none; some boast as many as half a dozen — like Plato’s Phaedo, which is: 1) a particular pleasure to read, 2) a seminal book that changed our thinking, 3) a standard work on the subject, 4) recommended for beginners in the subject, 5) a major masterpiece that is 6) not to be missed.
As a teenager, the titles that most interested me were those flagged by a magnifying glass or an asterisk, with the former denoting “difficult; worth preserving” and the latter “infuriating; possibly illuminating.” This second category was particularly exciting. I figured an “infuriating” book demanded more of a reader than one that was merely “difficult.” A book so supremely difficult that it was … infuriating! Yet, with sufficient intellectual energy brought to bear, the serious reader might crack the code and bask in the glow of illumination. Honestly, these were not books I was likely to read, but they were books I wanted to know about.
Recently, I found The List of Books at the library — the same library, in fact, where I first encountered it a quarter of a century ago, raising the delightful possibility that it was the same copy that I held in my hands so long ago. Once again, I drifted toward “difficult” and “infuriating,” curious to know how decades had colored my perceptions and whether my original interpretation was correct.
Sixty-one titles, clustered mostly in history and politics, are ranked as “infuriating.” The subjectivity of the entire enterprise became clear, and I found myself slipping into the same indignant space late 20th century critics occupied when demanded to know why this or that title was excluded from a “Best Books of the 20th Century” list. I haven’t actually read Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society, for example, but I know enough about it (and that counts for something, doesn’t it?) to know that excluding it from the list is an abomination. Questions abound. How can Peter Brooks’s 1968 treatise on dramatic theory be termed a seminal work that is both difficult and recommended for beginners? Why in the world is Ulysses not flagged as difficult?
Initially, my first hunch seemed correct. Reviewing these 61 titles, one gets the impression that Raphael and McLeish were highlighting books they believed were extremely difficult to read. Studies in Ethnomethodology, after all, can’t be a book you fly through. And the reader comments section on Amazon.com for Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero includes a telling remark: Writing Degree Zero is one of those 100-page books you need a 500-page book to really understand,” writes Mark Nadja. “You know you’re in trouble when, like me, you find yourself having a problem fully comprehending even the `explanatory’ preface.”
So it makes sense that Marx’s Das Capital is in the club, because — his brilliance notwithstanding — the man’s prose was frequently impregnable. But the exception to that rule complicates matters: The Communist Manifesto, a slim volume that happens to be very readable (thanks largely to the fact, one suspects, that Engels was there from the get-go to help). The Book of Lists would have you believe that it, like Capital, is also infuriating. Why?
At this point, it’s helpful to recall that the root of “infuriate” is fury, which begs the question: Do the bourgeoisie authors consider Marx, regardless of the difficulty of his prose, infuriating because he enraged their mid-19th century cousins? How could anyone have been infuriated by Capital, when few people likely even understood what the hell he was talking about?
The implication here seems to be that “infuriating” means “controversial.” It makes sense, then, to include Richard Aldington’s scandalous biography, Lawrence of Arabia — one so hostile toward its subject that one Amazon reviewer has said reading it is “like standing under a waterfall of venom.” But if Aldington gets to be infuriating for throwing darts at T.E. Lawrence, why does Jerzy Kosinski get a pass for screwing around with the Holocaust? His controversial 1965 novel The Painted Bird appears in the list, but it didn’t make the “infuriating” cut. Curious, since many readers were infuriated to learn that Kosinski may not even have written it.
“Infuriating” clearly works both ways. I cannot believe, for example, that Robert Graves retelling of The Greek Myths is infuriating for any of the same reasons that Jean Paul-Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is. I haven’t read the latter, but I’ll bet it’s a sonofabitch to get through.
Consider William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (which doesn’t appear in the list), the book Allen Ginsberg famously predicted would “drive everybody mad.” An obvious reference to the fact that the novel is incomprehensible. Naked Lunch is a notoriously difficult text – one might say infuriatingly so. I actually have read it, but it didn’t make me angry. I can understand, however, why June and Ward Cleaver would have been appalled if they’d found a dog-eared copy and a flashlight stuffed under Beaver’s pillow.
It seems to me that if we’re considering a book’s capacity to illicit genuine fury, it cannot merely ruffle feathers within a community of specialists. Sigfried Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition is deemed “infuriating,” but who, other than architects, becomes infuriated by a 960-page book about architecture? This seems insufficient. In my lifetime, the publication of a book that infuriates the general population has been a rare event. The Satanic Verses comes to mind, although that presents a different problem: The vast majority of those angered by Salman Rushdie’s book never actually read it.
Isn’t that the case, really, with most “infuriating” books? How many people actually finished (or even started) American Psycho? I’m no different when it comes to judging books by the covers. While perusing the history shelf at a bookstore recently, I saw a book called Being George Washington, by Glenn Beck, and immediately felt a sensation that approximated fury. The history shelf! A low-grade fury, to be sure; it wasn’t what I’d feel if someone harmed my child. But having observed the Beck phenomenon closely over the years, I feel justified saying that the man has no more business writing authoritatively and insightfully about George Washington than I do writing a book called Space, Time and Architecture. And yet, I never picked it up; its very existence enrages me.
But I’m neglecting the rest of the phrase denoted by an asterisk: These books are not only infuriating, but “possibly illuminating.” What does that mean? Possibly illuminating? The author may sound like he’s on crack, but we concede he may be on to something! Or: If you’re not a complete imbecile, you may learn something by reading this book.
This is a minor matter, to be sure. One reader’s “infuriating” is another’s “exhilarating.” The bigger problem with The List of Books, of course, is that it’s horribly outdated. It has a science and technology section devoid of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayer, David Quammen, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould or even Carl Sagan. A current “paranormal and occult” section without Whitley Strieber’s Communion books is like a list of best fantasy novels that excludes The Lord of the Rings. Speaking of fantasy, a similar problem looms over in children’s literature: No Harry Potter. Also, since 1981, graphic novels have evolved light years beyond the cheap paper they were once printed on. Consequently, those relying on The List of Books to decide which titles to scrape together in anticipation of the Zombie Apocalypse would remain oblivious to the work of Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, and Craig Thompson. Not to mention The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Which might come in handy.
Three decades on, The List of Books highlights better than its many predecessors the ephemeral quality of all lists of books and other artistic works. It’s a simple – and perhaps even instinctive – matter to argue about or even dismiss a list of the “best” (although perhaps not “favorite”) books because of this or that inclusion/exclusion. What, after all, is wrong with debate? Ultimately, the lesson we ought to take from Raphael and McLeish is the importance of embracing our Amazon- and Goodreads- and Riffle-fed obsession with listography. The sheer number and availability of our book lists may be infuriating, but they are often a pleasure to read. And even possibly illuminating.
There are many things you could call William S. Burroughs, who was born a hundred years ago this month, but Will Self prefers to call him “the original junkie,” a title which reflects the author’s hedonistic background and the strangeness of books like Naked Lunch. Self takes a close look at Burroughs’s novel-cum-memoir, Junky, in The Guardian.