The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon: The Rise and Fall of a Swindler
Soldier, cardsharp, nobleman: with his description of the fictional career of Barry Lyndon, Thackery takes us on a tour across the social classes of the 18th century. His story of the rise and fall of the Irish upstart is a satirical masterpiece.
Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 2013
The full title of Thackeray’s satirical novel “Barry Lyndon” is also a synopsis of the entire plot and goes as follows: “The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim.”
The “memoirs” of Barry Lyndon are not memoirs in the classical meaning of the term, i.e. autobiographical records of a historically or politically important figure; rather, they should be understood ironically. Because the protagonist, born as Redmond Barry in Ireland ca. 1730, is in fact a nobody pretending to be a very important somebody. Obviously prone to exaggeration, he tells the reader the glorious history of the Barry family, an old, noble Irish house that has lost its fame and fortune by suffering many blows of fate over several centuries. Now arrived at the lower class of society, Barry is a typical picaresque hero, who constantly gets into trouble and all kinds of absurd situations, and, yet more absurdly, manages to get out of trouble again. While doing so, he learns much about the world and holds up the mirror to society, always in a humorous fashion. In this case it is the decadence of the European aristocracy at the time of the Rococo, and the meaningless cruelty of war that are the object of the author’s criticism.
The novel’s satirical nature is already apparent in its language, when, for instance, Barry casually chats about “just massacres” or steals the identity of “Lieutenant Fakenham” as a deserter (Fakenham is indeed a real English town in Norfolk, but the ambiguity of the name is hard to overlook). Even one of Thackeray’s pen names, G.S. Fitzboodle foreshadows the shenanigans his literary characters are up to.
The adventures of Barry Lyndon include his service in the Seven Years’ War. He first fights for England, deserts, is caught and has to fight “in the service of his late Prussian Majesty”. He then accidentally runs into his uncle, who helps him flee the country. The two of them start a career as card players and tricksters, travelling from one European court to the next. The conspiracies and slanders include a Hamlet-like episode from his marriage with the rich, beautiful Countess Lyndon. Redmond Barry, who now calls himself Barry Lyndon, stars in the role of evil uncle Claudius, whom Gertrude (Countess Lyndon) weds after Barry has helped along the death of husband number one a little. The son from her first marriage doesn’t think that is funny at all. He entertains an oedipal relationship with his mother and later takes revenge on Barry. The story ends with the death of Barry Lyndon in a rundown prison: divorced, destitute, the beloved son dead, a drunkard.
As bleak as the ending may be, this masterpiece of satire makes for an extremely enjoyable read. A fantastic, visually striking film rendition was made by director Stanley Kubrick in 1975, a more than three-hour long filmic experience that recreates the composition of landscape and portrait paintings from the 18th century and whose special production methods have made film history.