The Lives of the Saints by Sebastian Barry

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Reviewed by Harriet

Anyone who knows me or reads my reviews will know that I’m a great admirer of Sebastian Barry. I’ve reviewed three of his novels on Shiny (here, here and here), and others on my blog. He is one of those relatively unusual things, a writer equally at home and successful as a novelist, a playwright and a poet. Here he is in yet another mode: The Lives of the Saints contains the texts of the three lectures – one a year – he delivered following his election as Laureate for Irish Fiction in February 2018. The first two lectures were given at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, where his mother Joan O’Hara had been a leading actress and where, in 1995, his award-winning play The Steward of Christendom had opened to great acclaim. The third lecture, in 2020, had been forced online by lockdown, recorded at home by his son Toby, and played at the Dublin Literary Festival.

Why Lives of the Saints? you may wonder. The saints of these lectures are the people Barry has loved, admired and learned from throughout the more than forty years of his writing life; those remarkable people, as he says in the first lecture, who he feels he has ‘been witness to…along the way’. The very first of these is his great-aunt Annie, whose life he wrote about in his 2002 novel Annie Dunne, ‘largely in an attempt to testify to her remarkable nature, if bitter as the crab-apples she prized on her favourite tree’. As a four-year-old child he and his sister had been sent to live with her for a while when his parents were away working. He celebrates her for:

how she harboured us, how she protected us – how she taught us to look beyond our own noses to the extravagant beauty of the hens like ballerinas in the yard, the helmeted cock the king of all things. How, in effect, she taught us to see her, in a way we had never seen anyone before. How her solitary, turning, light-gathering, beautifully speaking self hovered for us in the damp Wicklow air like a revelation and the aquamarine smudge of a human angel.

From Annie Dunne to Harold Pinter, who a short time before his death wrote a kind letter to Barry praising his books and met him for lunch. Then there are more writers: Val Mukerns, Ben Kiely, James Plunkett, Leyland Bardwell, and Barry’s ‘genius’ English teacher Father Gus Herlihy and others. One thing they all have in common is that they are no longer alive; but for Barry they are ‘secular avatars’:

 I think of these figures every day. I refer to them like texts or aphorisms. I live by them, I live sometimes through them, and I live towards them, even unto the waterfall.

‘Still Life: With Donal’ is the title of the second lecture. Here Barry tells the story of his writing of The Steward of Christendom, commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre while he was struggling with the demands of new twin babies. The director suggested offering the main part to the actor Donal McCann. Barry was wary – he known of McCann since childhood, ‘an actor of singular greatness’ but one given to ‘astonishing and old-fashioned drinking’. But in 1994, when they met to discuss the play, he was a reformed character, drinking orange juice and fizzy water. And so McCann, aged just fifty-three,  became the seventy-year old  Steward of Christendom, a performance of remarkable brilliance. Barry intuited that for him it was more than just a play:

His purpose was somehow by doing this play to resolve the great unresolvable thicket, the muddled wool basket of self, at the very heart of him. The distressing matters that had no doubt led him to drink so fiercely, consummately even, and that now in his oddly sainted sobriety were there even more fiercely to be rawly contemplated, understood, included, and by this means withheld, stopped from killing him.

McCann died, aged only 56, just a year after his final performance in the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. At that performance, for the first time, he not only stepped forward during the curtain call but stepped forward into the audience, who responded with a huge crescendo of applause, ‘for this overwhelming manifestation of his mysterious self, and the primacy of theatre as the unrepentant enemy of time’.

The third lecture, recorded at home, is called ‘The Fog of Family’. Here Barry explores the many mysteries and questions about his own family that will always go unanswered – many of which he has tried to answer in his novels and plays. But ‘tried’ is perhaps the wrong word here. Because he concludes by celebrating the fog itself:

Fiction certainly wants ambiguity, things glinting and glimpsed, possible reveals and redemptions, deep fogs moving across erased landscapes, with their bursts of sudden sunlight, and its quick removal. Fiction likes the fog more than anything, it seems to me, out of which faces emerge, suddenly. Perhaps real truth comes through the battered eye of fiction. 

I had the great pleasure – I could even say honour – of meeting Sebastian Barry just once, at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, where I’d arranged to interview him for a book I was putting together*. In my view he is one of the most important living writers, for the incredible beauty of his prose and for the huge, warm, compassionate heart that shines through everything he writes. Both these are demonstrated in these three lectures – many thanks to Faber for allowing us to read them.

* Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006 (Faber & Faber, 2006).

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sebastian Barry, The Lives of the Saints (Faber & Faber, 2022). 978-0571372027, 120pp., hardback. 

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1 comment

  1. I’ve only read Days Without End but that’s enough, I agree he’s one of the best!

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