Spotlight on Sebastian Barry
PUBLISHED: 19:00 01 September 2017
Our culture correspondent on an author reaping the rewards of authentic language, gripping life stories and taking inspiration from a murderous poodle.
Funny how times change. Once upon a time you might have known that a book was going to do well because it had good reviews in all the literary pages of all the right newspapers.
Now those pages have (mostly) gone. So how do we know now? When people start posting screen-grabs of the book on to their Instagram feed. In the past week I’ve seen this happen three times with Sebastian Barry’s Booker-longlisted novel Days Without End.
Barry has already won the Walter Scott Prize for this book (and is the only person to have won that prize twice, previously with On Canaan’s Side). This came shortly after Days Without End won the Costa Prize, another second win for Barry. Now the novel is being hotly tipped as the title most likely to take the Booker. It’s one of the few prizes the Irish writer has yet to win, having been shortlisted before for A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter recently released as a film (albeit one Barry has publicly said he’s not hugely keen on).
We’ll find out in the second week of September whether Days Without End has made it to the Booker shortlist. (The prize itself is announced in October.) But Barry is already experiencing an extraordinary, deserved outpouring of love for his work with this book. Gillian Reynolds wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Sebastian Barry’s great river of drama, poetry and fiction flows from the spring of living history, stories your grandfather might have remembered his mother telling him about her grandfather, tales of growing up, going away, being cold, hungry or in love, staying alive.” What has been most striking about the extracts from Days Without End that people have been posting on social media, is how unusual the language is: simple, unpretentious, striking, a written rendering of how people really speak, mistakes and all. This is the real feel that people go to Barry for.
Described as “a sensational novel set in mid-19th century America”, Days Without End is the story of a young Irish immigrant’s army years in the Indian wars (against the Sioux and the Yurok) and the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, having felt the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the US army in the 1950s and finds himself fighting wars he barely understands – and yet they make him feel more alive than ever. Fans of the novel include Kazuo Ishiguro and Ali Smith and even its Amazon ratings from readers are glowingly gushing: “Shockingly gory but really compelling”; “this was such a wonderful book”; “how wonderful to have an optimistic narrator who expresses their joy with life through simple and appropriate language”.
Barry previously lived in the Wicklow mountains for two decades but has recently relocated to north London. He was born in Dublin in 1955, his father an architect, his mother an actress. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he read English and Latin, following an academic path before publishing his first novel, Macker’s Garden in 1982. A steady stream of work followed and he has now amassed a total of two poetry collections, nine novels and 14 plays.
Although Barry is now reaping the rewards of his success, not all of his work has been warmly received. His satirical novel Hinterland was described in the Daily Telegraph as “about as exciting as a lukewarm Spud-U-Like covered in rancid marge and greasy baked beans”. Charming. Seeing A Long Long Way shortlisted for the Booker must have been satisfying. But it was really The Secret Scripture, about a woman in a mental asylum writing her autobiography, that brought Barry to the attention of the mainstream and cemented his reputation as a household name. The Secret Scripture was based on a family story told to Barry by his mother about a great aunt who disappeared into an institution. “I once heard my grandfather say that she was no good,” he told the Guardian. “That’s what survives and rumours of her beauty. She was nameless, fateless, unknown. I felt I was almost duty-bound as a novelist to reclaim her and, indeed, remake her.”
The story behind Days Without End is less romantic: Barry has said that the “notes” for the battle scenes in the novels were inspired by a killing spree by his pet poodle who one day attacked a group of newborn lambs with “ecstatic enthusiasm”. The poodle, Billy, disappeared off into the countryside one day and, in the few minutes while Barry and his son were trying to find him, the dog managed to savage the lambs. Barry knew immediately the dog would have to be put down as under Irish law, dog owners are liable for injuries to livestock.
Barry has talked of his excitement about writing a book that did not describe Ireland. Instead it was about an Irishman’s experience in America. “You do get imprisoned in a kind of style, especially after 40 years,” he has said, “And I could feel it grievously leaning on me. You become able to do something, and that’s almost verging on fatal.”
He has suggested that a novelist should feel as if the story is not quite within their grasp: “The novel is the art of getting everything wrong.” He has once again returned to the story of an ancestor but, as before, only loosely. He had a relative called Thomas “but all my grandfather ever said about him was that his great-uncle had been in the Indian wars. That’s it. That was exceptionally freeing.”
He has spoken about the difficulties of exploring autobiography in writing, having once written about a dinner with friends of Samuel Beckett only to have the great writer remark: “You should never write about friends or family.” Barry realised later that almost all of Beckett’s writing was based on his own experience: “That’s all he’d done himself, but he’d hidden it better.”
One of the most beautiful details to this latest book is the title. Barry told the Guardian that the book is named after the time in your life when you are in the midst of living: “The days of our lives when we have our kids and we’re not thinking about being old or young, you’re just in the maelstrom of life. An incredibly privileged time.” That time, he says, is over for him at the age of 61: “You’re like Rip Van Winkle waking up in the Hollow.”
There have got to be some compensations in life, though, like being a best-selling literary novelist and the toast of Ireland. Barry must be getting used to winning prizes by now. But he shows no signs of getting bored of it. He has said that being long-listed for the Booker is “pure happiness”. “These are moments of pure happiness for a writer,” he told the Irish Times, “Professionally, but also, as Yeats might say, ‘in the deep heart’s core.’”