Monday, March 9, 2009

Dubliners by James Joyce

I first read this back in high school when I was too lazy to appreciate it, or read it. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man two years ago, and it slowly became one of my favorites, resonating with me on a very personal level. But that's the thing about Joyce: only a few passages strike me as beautiful or profound as I'm reading them, I typically only appreciate the book as a whole, in retrospect. He isn't very given to lyricism, but when he does put flourish into his words, it shows, as in this passage from "The Dead".

The horse was whipped up and the cab rattled off along the quay amid a chorus of laughter and adieus.
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.


This collection of short stories is a perfect example of his work functioning only as a whole. I don't think he meant this as a set of standalone works, but rather a piecemeal portrait of dirty old Dublin: here are its drunks, here its aristocracy, here the lonely scholar. Each character is given a brutally honest once over before the next is introduced, and when all the plights and dramas of various Dubliners are stacked up, you've got a very human, bleeding, shitting city. Its citizens face the same crises as we do. A young boy is confronted with death for the first time, a woman's fear of leaving her country, dreary as it is, costs her a bright future.
Evelyn and A Painful Case stood out when I was reading. But, without contest, The Dead is the crown jewel, appropriately saved for last. Gabriel's inner conflict in The Dead is painfully familiar, as is his slow revelation of the fleeting nature of life, a breathtaking passage that I wanted to reproduce here, but won't for fear of taking away some of its kick. Those three are the only that I'd say could be rightly enjoyed outside the book, but you can't see Joyce's whole, conflicted portrayal of Dublin if you do. He's trying to create an Irish identity without romanticizing his people or his country, and has a hard time of it. He puts so much sorrow and so much of his own wanderlust in his characters, the overriding sense of Dublin is of a city that butts up against sorrow regularly, and covers it up and pushes on.

If you take it on, I highly recommended reading it aloud with a thick Irish accent.


Carlton Farmer said...

I read everything aloud with a thick Irish accent, including dinner menus.

Carlton Farmer said...

I have wanted to read something by Joyce for a while now. Would you recommend this is a starting point?

Nihil Novum said...

Definitely. It's a lot easier read than anything else of his.

Nathan said...

I'd say so, too. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" bowled me over, but is a lot harder to work through.