In general I prefer events with as little reading as possible unless the public reading is a performance and adds to the text. And when Sebastian Barry is reading and then I don’t want any talking at all! Watch this to understand ….
At this year’s EIBF he read the shocking scene from the art museum in Chicago (which starts on page 73 of the hardback edition.) He stood and, as is his wont acted the part, transported the audience and left them stunned (even those who had read the book). And then he told us that it was his great uncle who had been gunned down in Chicago in similar circumstances.
While Lilly Bere of the book is married to the assassination victim, in reality she was his sister, Barry’s great aunt and the third aunt that he is seeking to reclaim in his fiction. Alongside her brother, Lilly fled Ireland in terror, under a death sentence from the IRA. It’s only very recently that Barry discovered the true circumstances and there’s not a little anger mixed in with his sadness. Barry is, therefore, not only seeking to reclaim Lilly, but to repatriate her.
The novel is a confession – not in the sense of bringing one’s misdeeds to light but in the St. Augustine sense – one of tone, written down to find meaning, to remeet oneself honestly in all the stations of one’s life. But can those memories be honest after the passage of so much time. Lilly is 89, after all. Barry maintains that it is not the accuracy of the memory that is important but its radiance.
The chair, Steven Gale, asked Barry about her language which remains Irish throughout. Barry quoted Heidigger – language is where we live. The enforced change of identity in the USA was a great loss. Lilly would loved to have lived a normal life, to raise her children in Ireland and to have been buried in the same plot of land as her family. Also it was very difficult for 1st generation emigrants to become assimilated. All this was very useful, he said. It meant I didn’t have to do American accents!
How accurate is the fictional Lilly’s life? I don’t know what happened to Lilly after the assassination, he said, and the power of a novelist to give fictional life to someone who once lived in that complicated thing, real life, is absurd and disgraceful when you think about it. Talking of an upcoming American tour he is hoping that his American cousins don’t slap him in the face because of some unintended offence.
A question from the audience asked if Barry had ever considered the ethics of harvesting his relatives in the way he does. That’s a scary thought he said, I’ve thought so little about it. I do believe though in the pernicious effects of not telling secrets on generations to follow. Ironically it was his mother telling him his grandfather’s stories which led to a family rift, after Barry had used them, I think, in The Whereabouts of Aeneas McNulty. He and his grandfather never spoke again. I can only make that up to him, Barry said, by ensuring I never forget him.
On Canaan’s Side is longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize. It is the third time that Barry has joined this particular circus. What does that do to you as a novelist?, asked the chair. Keith Douglas wrote a poem Simplify me when I’m dead, said Barry. I can only say how wonderful it is to be simplified while I am alive. And if the Booker prize is a circus, it’s the one I want to run away with.