Armchair Travel: Irish Writer Kevin Barry Shares His Summer Reading List

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, and this is The World.

James Joyce: Look, look, the dusk is growing! My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher's gone ashley.

Hills: That's James Joyce, reading from his novel "Ulysses," back in 1929. Joyce's work is meant to be read out loud, says another Irish writer, Kevin Barry. He's the latest author to share some of his summer armchair travel suggestions with us. And Joyce's collection of short stories, "Dubliners," tops Barry's list.

Kevin Barry: Anybody who's visited Dublin will know that it has a certain air as a city. It's often grey-skied, it's often quite wet, as it is today here, and it has quite a melancholy air, sometimes, and this feeling comes off the page as well when you open the stories of "Dubliners."

Hills: So compare the Dublin of Joyce's era with the Dublin of today.

Barry: Extremely difficult and weirdly similar at the same time. I think if you go through the stories of the book the description of the main shopping bustle downtown, and O'Connell Street, the never-changing River Liffey as it goes grayly through the city, you would be quite at home in the city through the stories. But at the same time Dublin has undergone, in the last fifteen, twenty years, a huge change. It's, for the first time, become a very multicultural city. Also, lots of new tensions in the city. But all those tensions in Irish life are there in the stories of this book as well. But as someone who writes short stories myself, when you read the work of this very young man, it's really terrifying, you know? Because you're looking for a slip in the rhythm, or the sense, or just an under fit adjective…

Hills: [laughs] Competing with him.

Barry: Yeah. And all you find yourself going, again and again, is, 'God, you're so good.' You know?

Hills: How old were you the first time you read it?

Barry: I can remember precisely, actually, because I took my first copy of "Dubliners" down off the shelf recently and discovered it was due back to Limerick City Library in 1987. I never returned it, I loved it so much. And I remember at that time I was a kind of a pale and gaunt teenage poet type, and I would take my reading to a graveyard of a cathedral in Limerick City, and I would lie amongst the headstones, melancholy, you know, hoping for an early but ironic death. But it never came. But that summer stays with me in reading those stories.

Hills: What's interesting is Joyce wasn't actually living in Dublin when he wrote those stories, and I mention that in part because the next author you are directing our listeners to is the late Roberto BolaÃ? ±o, and you've chosen his tome "2666," which takes place in Mexico. And BolaÃ? ±o had lived there, but he wasn't when he wrote that book. Is there something about not living in the place and relying on memory when you write it? Is it easier to understand a place once you've left it?

Barry: Yeah. I think that distance on a place, it sharpens the senses for it. And BolaÃ? ±o did live in Mexico as a late teenager and in his early twenties, I think. But he wrote "2666"³ in kind of late middle age, when he was living in Spain.

Hills: How does BolaÃ? ±o evoke Mexico for readers?

Barry: He does it by tiny detail. We get to taco joints, we get to cheap bars, we get to kind of seedy nightclubs. We get the smell of the place, and it all lifts off the page so brilliantly. It's very dark material. It focuses on the disappearances and the killings of women around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, which is very closely modeled on Ciudad JuÃ? ¡rez. But I often think, if you're thinking of summer reading, actually in a weird way it's a good time to tackle the darker stuff, you know?

Hills: Why's that?

Barry: Do you want to read this stuff in a dark winter's night with a gale rattling the shutters on your windows? Or is it good to have some sort of light and air and summer light around you? I weirdly read "2666"³ on the beach last summer. I'm sure I looked pretty pretentious, but you know in a weird way it worked for that moment, and for that setting.

Hills: So you're staying dark and gritty in your third and final choice, "A Clockwork Orange," the 1962 dystopian novella by Anthony Burgess, which a lot of people know from the film. Why this book?

Barry: I'm traveling to my own past by choosing this book. As a guy of about twenty, twenty-one, when I was starting to think about writing seriously myself, it was one of the books that was very important to me.

Hills: Why was it so important to you?

Barry: I think because of the musicality and the rhythms of its prose. I write very much with the ear, and I try to get a musical feeling into the sentences. I very much recognize a kindred spirit in Anthony Burgess. The story of "A Clockwork Orange" is set in an eerie, near future, in an English city that seems to exist under a kind of totalitarian regime. And he invents a whole language for this future city. And I think any book that's set in the future is really about the moment in which it's written. And it seems very evident now when you read "A Clockwork Orange" that in fact it's about British cities in the early 1960s. It's about the emerging cities of youth cults and mods and rockers fighting on Brighton Beach. Though it seems like a trip to the future, in a way it's a trip to the nostalgic past.

Hills: You mentioned the youth lingo that he makes up, and I know a glossary was actually added to a later edition of "A Clockwork Orange," and I understand Burgess was…

Barry: Dismayed, yeah.

Hills: Yeah, Burgess wasn't happy about that. What are some of your favorite words that Burgess created for "A Clockwork Orange"?

Barry: One that's kind of passed into slang, on this side of the Atlantic anyway, is "gloopy," which means stupid, or dumb. I'd say if there's one thing, actually, that links the three books I've talked about, I think there's a musicality about all of them. Burgess himself was a composer as well as a writer. James Joyce was a wonderful singer. BolaÃ? ±o was a rock fanatic. And I think that some of that love for music and musicality got in through all of their works.

Hills: In listening to your choices, I'm struck because your own writing is very much kind of gritty, taking on the margins of life, dive bars and problematic families. What drew you to those worlds?

Barry: I guess everything with me starts with the ear, and it starts with the way people speak, with the way that we speak in the west of Ireland, which is where I'm originally from. And I think the English language is a marvelous resource for writers here, because we take it and we twist it into all sorts of strange, new, wonderful, malevolent, and sometimes very beautiful shapes in the way that we naturally speak English here. There's an undertone of an older language, of our natural Irish language, Gaelic, underneath it, and that changes the way we form sentences and so forth.

Hills: Is that what you're speaking to me right now?

Barry: Well I guess so, [laughs] I mean my accent I suppose would be quite Midwestern in Irish terms, from around Limerick City where I grew up.

Hills: Can you speak to me for a couple minutes in what you would term the more Western Irish variety?

Barry: Well a proper west of Ireland accent would be much thicker than mine, and it would be quite fast in places, it would go on very quickly. You would struggle I think, Carol, to catch all of it sometimes. The peculiar thing about Ireland is it's a small, wet little rock on the verge of the black Atlantic, you know? But the accents change so radically, and so much, within a couple of miles. You could go to villages a couple of miles apart and the accent would be completely different. And I think when the accent changes, everything else changes. The soul changes. And my tactic, I guess, as a writer, always, I think if I can get the voices right, I can get everything else about the people from that.

Hills: Writer Kevin Barry, his latest book of short stories is "Dark Lies the Island," and it's coming out this fall. Thank you so much Kevin.

Barry: Thank you Carol. A pleasure.

Hills: For more of our armchair travel series, and to hear an excerpt from Kevin Barry's book, go to By the way, Barry told us that the title of his short story collection was inspired by a song. You might recognize it.

The Beatles: [singing] Your day breaks
Your mind aches
You find that all her words
Of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you

Hills: Yup, it's "For No One" by The Beatles. We leave you with that today. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I'm Carol Hills. Happy reading.