I have long been a huge fan of the Hollywood memoir and particular favourites include Julia Phillips jaw-dropping You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, the hilarious wit of David Niven’s The Moon’s A Balloon and the coked-up madness of Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Technically speaking, actor Gabriel Byrne’s new book Walking With Ghosts is the memoir of a Hollywood veteran, but it is so unlike the books I have just mentioned as to be unrecognisable as the same genre.
This remarkably intimate memoir from the star of Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects and the recent ZeroZeroZero is actually his second foray into autobiography, following 1994’s Pictures in My Head. Unlike other celebrity memoirs, this isn’t a chronological exploration of a life lived in the spotlight, nor is it a series of anecdotes and stories from the set (although there are a few of those), rather Walking with Ghosts is altogether more complex, a lyrical and honest exploration of the childhood and upbringing that led Byrne to where he is today.
Born in the 1950’s Byrne grew up in working class Dublin, the eldest of a family of six. His grandmother fostered a love of the cinema in the young Gabriel, but the Catholic Church loomed larger and at the tender age of eleven, he travelled to England to join a seminary and study for the priesthood. Isolation, confusion and abuse (which is handled here very sensitively) led him back to Ireland where he worked unsuccessfully as a plumber and an encyclopedia salesman before joining an amateur dramatics group and getting his break on Irish primetime drama The Riordans.
Walking With Ghosts flows dreamily between the past and the present. Hollywood may be the glitzy backdrop to Byrne’s life, but the Dublin of his youth is the world to which he returns again and again. There are some Hollywood tales to be found among these pages – featuring a young Leonardo DiCaprio, horse-riding with Ava Gardner, a belligerent then remorseful Lawrence Olivier and a drunken Richard Burton – but Byrne only gives brief flashes of this world. If you are looking for salacious gossip from Oscar parties and big film sets, you’ve probably picked up the wrong memoir, as Byrne uses these anecdotes to loop back to his true preoccupation with his childhood and the family that he so loved.
It’s a world that Byrne conjures beautifully. His writing is lyrical and emotional, with a filmic sense for detail and setting. His memories of his family are tender and tenderly told.
I remember a day, standing beneath the trees to take shelter from the rain, my father and I watched a field being plowed. The horses plodding through the black turned earth, backs slick with rain, a man walking behind them…
– He is the last of his kind, my father said.
I carry that day like a photograph in my heart.
I had never felt so close to him as in that silence.
Where some of his memories appear dream-like and rose-tinted, his exploration of his early traumas – from the abuse he received at the seminary, his alcoholism, the darker side of celebrity and the loss of his beloved sister – are dealt with head on, their stark scars brought close to the surface. It’s an incredibly honest book, from a man who comes across as a rather reluctant star and a conflicted actor.
He recounts how, at a party after the premiere of The Usual Suspects in Cannes, a producer took him aside and told him that this was it, ‘you’re a big fucking star’. Byrne’s reaction was to leave, to hide for days wishing, paradoxically, that it would all go away.
Why did I feel so worthless, of no merit, superfluous to the world? All I wanted was to be left alone in this dark room. I was afraid that if something cracked inside me, I might become insane.
He brings that questioning nature to his writing. Walking with Ghosts is haunted in the most poetic way by the people that Byrne has loved and the place that made him. His act of writing brings them alive for the reader and brings alive a time and a place that is long gone, but still lingers in the memory of many.
I have always thought that Byrne held himself as an actor with a quiet dignity and that same essence suffuses the pages of this beautiful book. The book ends with Byrne preparing to go on stage on Broadway in a play by Eugene O’Neill. He imagines his mother watching him from the stalls and remembers the deaths of both his parents before he has to step into the spotlight. It is a poignant ending to a brave and heartfelt book.
Why are we so afraid to let others see us as we really are? There is a locked room which we ourselves dare not enter for fear. Fear of what exactly I don’t know. Maybe that is one of the necessities of fiction. It allows us to experience the hidden depths of ourselves and to acknowledge that we are all made of the same human stuff.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!