By Rob Doyle
(Swift Press, £12.99 h/b)
Regular readers of these book pages will recall that throughout 2019 (aka ‘the before times’) Rob Doyle contributed a weekly column under the tag line ‘Old Favourites – A year of Rob Doyle’s best-loved books’, in which the acclaimed author of Here Are The Young Men, This is The Ritual and Threshold reread and wrote about some of the books which had meant most to him as formative influences. Well, here are all 52 entries collected under one roof, with added interpolated ‘memories and reflections on books, reading and writing, and the life through which they’ve flowed’ punctuating each entry, the latter born partly out of frustration with the original 340-word limit.
The result is a bracing smorgasbord of literary delights and oversharing, ranging from the oldest, first century B.C. Buddhist text Dhammapada (#33), to the most recently written, Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘post-fictional’ The Adversary (#35), by way of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (#11) and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (#47).
Not all of the following additions relate directly to the preceding text, or only tangentially so: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (#18) is followed by a summary of the London addresses at which Doyle has resided. Regarding his reading habits, Doyle’s preference is for ‘non-fiction, including criticism, philosophy, aphorisms, history and books about what the internet is doing to me...autobiographical writing of all sorts…novels that don’t act like novels’, explaining that ‘If all that’s going on is yarn-spinning, with narrative proffered as an end in itself, I’ll sit there thinking, ‘What’s the point of this?’ Incidents, setting, character – these are well and good, but if there are no ideas charging through them I get restless.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Borges (#49) is nominated as ‘his century’s greatest writer.’
If this all sounds a little too heavy, be aware that humour is not least among the components in Doyle’s armoury. There is a riff on Schopenhauer’s (#5) ‘A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short’; a couple of forays into self-criticism where he finds himself on ‘the wrong side of history’; a skewering of the culture of literary prizes; a hilarious ahistorical interview between RD and La Rochefoucauld (#45); and an extended analogy between the Brazilian 1970 World Cup team and Latin American literature, in terms of ‘outrageous and ingenious embellishment.’
Because of his aesthetic judgements, and general worldview, Doyle is certainly the younger Irish male writer (younger than me, that is) with whom I feel most affinity. As he puts it in his after-the-fact rumination on Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp (#2), in answer to the question ‘What is it we’re reading for?’: ‘…what I’m primarily in it for is friendship’, a fair proportion of which consists of like-mindedness, or as they say nowadays, empathy.
First published in The Irish Times, 6/11/2021