The actor on preferring girls’ comics, being politicised by fiction and finally understanding The Great Gatsby
Gabriel Byrne: ‘I was taught to love reading and it has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
The Guardian-Gabriel Byrne
My earliest reading memory
In the 1960s Bunty and Judy were weekly “girls’ comics”, which had adventures and mysteries like Sandra of the Secret Ballet and the Four Marys, as well as stories of the great ballets and operas. The Topper was for boys and featured cartoons but also serialised writers such as Dickens, Buchan and Walter Scott on its back pages, gorgeously illustrated in colour. I preferred the girls’ comics.
My favourite book growing up
The Wind in the Willows: Kenneth Grahame’s blissfully imagined world of adventure, friendship and loyalty among the animals who dwell by the river. What a glorious experience and precious memory that first reading was.
The book that changed me as a teenager
The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. I admired the young character’s courage and his disdain for a system that wants to clip his wings. I saw the film with Tom Courtenay, which led me to the book. I found an immediate kinship with the protagonist, whose articulate rage against authority was something I identified with. The language was powerful, simple, unadorned and real. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a brilliant sequel. It deals with the soul-destroying, robotic life of the factory floor and the antihero’s struggle to overcome his place in the prescribed economic and social status quo. Sillitoe led me to other great writers, such as John Braine and Stan Barstow, the northern, so-called kitchen-sink novelists who broke open a new seam of literary expression in British literature.
The writer who changed my mind
In my early 20s I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It awakened me to the reality of class politics and social injustice. Published in 1914, it was written by Robert Tressell, an Irish sign writer.
The book that made me want to be a writer
Quite late as a reader I discovered Raymond Carver. I resolved that, if I ever wrote anything, I’d be guided by the simplicity of his work.
The book or author I came back to
I went back to The Great Gatsby after having lived in America for some years, and I finally got it. Naively, when I read it as a teenager in Dublin I couldn’t reconcile the cynical reality of Fitzgerald’s American dream with the mythologies I’d absorbed from films. His portrait of wealth and self-invention meant little until I spent a holiday in the Hamptons on the south fork of Long Island. And then suddenly there they all were: the modern-day Jay, Nick, Daisy and Tom in summer linens on manicured lawns, as if no other world had ever existed but theirs.
The book I reread
Hamlet, two or three times a year at least. We read the play first at secondary school. Our teacher brought in recordings of various actors – Gielgud, Olivier, Burton – and we discussed how each interpretation brought a different perspective to the drama. Then he had us record it. It was beyond exciting to listen back to ourselves owning the play and bringing those words to life from the page. Although I’ve never played Hamlet, in many ways I am him. As we all are, I think, because, like Joyce with Leopold Bloom, Shakespeare created a timeless and univeral everyman, articulating our inner voice: conflicted, human and yearning to know truth.
The book I could never read again
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I never understood why it’s so revered.
The book I discovered later in life
Ulysses by James Joyce, thanks to the epically brilliant performance by the Radio Éireann players in Dublin (broadcast in 1982).
The book I am currently reading
Trio by William Boyd.
My comfort read
Anything by PG Wodehouse or Somerset Maugham. I was taught to love reading and it has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Home is where the books are. I love the touch and smell of pages. I’m interested by font and typescript and cover design. I always inscribe the front page with the date and place where I bought the book and a short note of where I was emotionally in my life. I like dog-eared pages, rings of coffee stains, underlined passages, questions in the margins. It’s a compliment to a writer to see the evidence of the book having been well read and taken seriously.
Walking With Ghosts: A Memoir by Gabriel Byrne is published by Picador (£9.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.