Dubliners--James Joyce

It is always a great pleasure to revisit an old friend and discover about it new and more interesting aspects. For those not intimate with the Joycean oeuvre, Dubliners is the earliest of the extant prose works and consists of a series of short stories, one of which has been called the finest short story in English in the twentieth century.

As short stories, these are the most accessible of Joyce's work. This is not to mean that they are necessarily "easy."  But it does mean that on first approach the reader can make some sense of them and grasp the essentials.  As I've intimated, revisiting the stories allows one to encounter them in greater depth and breadth, and even simple tales like "Araby" develop (to use the florid language of the SCOTUS) emanations and penumbras.

A quick tour reveals stories about new love, old love, mistaken love, lust, and modern unhappiness.  Dublin apparently wasn't a grand place to live at the turn of the twentieth century and all too many Dubliners were fully aware of its failings. When we encounter the blithely amoral and nihilistic heroes of "Two Gallants" and the remote and misanthropic centerpiece of "A Painful Case" we are brought straight back to the first story, "The Sisters", which begins, "There was no hope for him this time."  And we're made to contemplate the reality that is brought home in Ulysses--in which the metaphor for Irish Art is a cracked lookingglass of a servant.

Joyce's masterful control of language, incident, detail, and plot are all on display in each story.  And the finest, finest story of the bunch is, without question, "The Dead."  Subject to more conflicting interpretations than almost any other work I've bothered to dip into the criticism of, "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel Conroy at a Christmas Party in a house on the edge of Dublin.  I'd rather not say more than to say that this is a party with so many and so pointed undercurrents that I, for one, would wish, had I gone, that I had stayed home.

My enjoyment of these stories was greatly enhanced by being in Dublin at the time.  When I read "Two Gallants" I walked to the end of Grafton Street and looked across at Stephen's Green, and in a reverse sort of ramble wandered up to Merrion Square.  Reading "The Dead" I could see the places all along the Liffey and up near the park visited by all of the characters.  There was at least one more mention of Davy Byrne's (also figuring notably in the Laestrygonian segment of Ulysses) and many other Dublin institutions and pubs (many of which are still in place).

Dubliners is, without question, a book of place and a book of time. As with Ulysses, if you know the places, the meanings become more obvious and the incident more chiseled and realistic.  Dubliners is one of those very, very fine books that reward repeated careful readings.  But caveat lector: we're not talking a cheery experience.

*****

Comments

  1. You make me want to read Joyce, one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a bookish blog post. Cheers, K

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  2. I'm halfway though rereading it, as it was one of the books I most enjoyed at university. So far, I've found every single story powerful. Two Gallants, An Encounetr and Counterparts are terrific, and I love the way The Sisters creeps up on the reader - at first, it seems an inconsequential story, but you find yourself more haunted by it as you reread it.

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  3. I like what you say about readers getting a "first approach," and when I write I believe in giving them that. Some post-modern writers would do well to see that Joyce gets done everything he needs to get done here, and yet it's still accessible.

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  4. Dear Richard,

    There is much to be learned from reading Joyce, particularly this book, for the sheer joy of it. I agree, there isn't a negligible or weak story in the lot. From some, it is harder to extract the kernel ("After the Race" and "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"). But after some consideration, even these yield their treasures.

    Dear Shelley,

    I couldn't agree more. For my own work, I could care less if every reader plumbs the depths (or shallows) of my intent, so long as each walks away with something that they can treasure or enjoy, for whatever reason.

    Dear K.

    Thank you. It is my sincere hope that you do take it up because I so enjoy the reflections you post on what you read.

    Shalom,

    Steven

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