When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played until our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent streets.
from ‘Araby’ by James Joyce
It’s hard to come to a book without expectations. The author, the context in which you select the book (a review, a random find in the library or charity shop), the cover (oh, the cover!), the blurb – everything conspires to give you a sense of the space the book might occupy, the position it might take in the shelves of your mind. It’s even harder to come to a book without expectations when it was first published a century ago and has been discussed and written about ever since. And so it was with James Joyce’s early short stories Dubliners.
‘Araby’ was the only one of the stories that I’d read before. In fact, the only Joyce that I’d read before. It’s the story of a young boy’s determination to go to the bazaar (Araby) to buy a present for Mangan’s sister, a girl with whom he is quietly and desperately in love. I can remember not liking it, finding the ending abrupt and the overall effect not what I had imagined a James Joyce story to be. It’s one of the three stories written in the first person about childhood that start the book (the other stories are all third person and about adult characters). But this time, read in the context of the other boyhood stories, I loved it for its atmosphere, its perfected depiction of the dependence of childhood, of the impossibility of acting as we want to, when we want to. The boy, dependent on his uncle’s permission, arrives at the bazaar too late and – in one of those epiphanies that slightly make me cringe, even as I see where they are gesturing – faces himself as ‘a creature driven and derided by vanity’.
When I reached ‘The Dead’, the last of the fifteen stories, and read the opening line, ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet’, I had James Wood whispering in my ear, This is free indirect style…you know that no-one is literally run off their feet, this is what Lily would be saying to herself. (I’m paraphrasing How Fiction Works.) I had echoes of Charles Baxter’s essay ‘Counterpointed Characterization’ from Burning Down The House ringing distantly in my ears. I had just read David Shields’ Reality Hunger and the claim that when we reach the epiphany of the story the rest of the story falls away and is useless to us. And still, and still. Still I was transported, still I was carried to Dublin and to the night of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Still I was left wondering why I had left it so long.
There’s a certain despair in all of these stories. A colour, a feeling, an overwhelming atmosphere. The characters are all trapped: by their own addictions or natures, by their country, by poverty, by fate. Escape seems impossible. And so there is an endless perambulation of the city, and I wish that I knew Dublin well and could follow the paths of these characters as I can follow the route Mrs Dalloway takes through London. It had also escaped me that the stories would be so political, so involved with the question of Irish nationalism and the English domination of the country. Though this should not really have been a surprise at all.
There’s not much I can add, or would want to add, to what has been said about Dubliners. Except to say – if you haven’t already – read it, go there. Sometimes the shape a book occupies in our minds turns out to be completely different from the reality of the book. Which is perhaps just to state the obvious: it’s sometimes easier to spend time reading about a book rather than actually reading the book, but it’s rarely as valuable.
Entirely serendipitous to the timing of my reading of Dubliners, lots of things are happening to celebrate the centenary of its publication. (This is what happens if you leave a good book for long enough!) There’s an interesting looking free app from the Humanities Institute at University College Dublin exploring ‘The Dead’ through audio, images and commentaries. Equally intriguing is Dubliners 100 – ‘cover versions’ of the stories by fifteen contemporary Irish writers, edited by Thomas Morris. I recently read Morris’s excellent and funny editorial statement – ‘A Tingling Pleasure’ – at The Stinging Fly. He likens the submissions period to ‘one long curious birthday’ for the magazine editor before going on to say,
while I enjoy receiving what I have asked for (a CD, a bear clad in a tweed jacket, a 2,500-word neat and tidy short story about love and loss), it’s always so much better to be blown away by a gift—some strange but perfect object—I never knew existed, but now, gleaming there in my hands, already seems utterly essential, appears to have always existed, and makes me wonder how I ever got by without it.
Wonderful. And as true for readers as editors.