I’m nervous, I have to admit, about writing about James Joyce and Dubliners, despite the fact that I wrote my MA thesis on James Joyce and the character of the city in his fiction. He’s the writer I’ve written the most about in my life, over 40,000 words in fact. The nervousness arises, though, from the fact that Dubliners is one of the first books I loved as an adult, one of the first books to really shine and knock me off my feet. It’s been about 25 years since I first read it, and maybe a decade since I last travelled from one side to the other (although I have re-read ‘The Dead’, the long short story that ends the collection, maybe a half a dozen times in that intervening period, there’s something about that story that resonates with me in all my incarnations). I was nervous, I should admit, when I slipped the Folio edition from its case, and cracked the plain brown card covers, because I wondered if I would still love the stories contained within, because I wondered if my tastes had changed (slipped, maybe?) and that Joyce wouldn’t be what he once was to me. You know what I’m going to say: I needn’t have worried. Kevin Barry, who writes the introduction to this edition, is right:
‘The stories are alive inside these covers: each time you bring your life to the pages – with all your wounds and joys, with your latest triumphs and fresh afflictions – the lives of the stories will have changed in response; on each reading, new truths will be sprung; but they were there all the while, you just had to live the life that would bring you to them.’
15 short stories comprise a collection that has a fighting case for being named the greatest short story collection ever written. Taken individually and collectively, they do what good short stories should – they work on their own, and they support each other, like drunken friends, shambling home from the pub, singing songs their fathers taught them (and Joyce’s own father loiters in the shadows of a lot of these stories – read John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello’s excellent biography of Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, for more on that). You can read these stories without knowledge of what Joyce was up to (although his view, that the Irish, that Dubliners, were constrained by a great ‘hemiplegia of the will’ permeates every tales, the book could just as easily have been called Prisoners), you can read Dubliners without having tried your hand yet at Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. It’s the most accessible Joyce and, as such, is a perfect entry drug to everything else.
The most interesting thing about re-reading Dubliners, though – and it’s very much as Barry says – is in seeing what you haven’t seen before. There are details that the younger me skipped over, passed by, didn’t see. The hilarity, for example, of the back and forth that goes on in the collection’s opener, ‘The Sisters’ as they sit discussing the late Father Flynn:
‘Did he… peacefully?’ she asked.
‘Oh, quite peacefully, ma’am,’ said Eliza. ‘You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.’
‘Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.’
‘He knew then.’
‘He was quite resigned.’
‘He looks quite resigned,’ said my aunt.
This could be dialogue taken straight from Father Ted. If you read it with that kind of eye, the sombre hue of what would have been my youthful reading takes on an altogether different tone. Likewise the final line of ‘An Encounter’, a story that wowed me as a young man, two boys bunking off school whose adventure is derailed somewhat by a strange masturbating man: ‘And I was penitent; because in my heart I had always despised him a little.’ Years ago, I passed that line by; now, it seems to subvert the entire story. It sent me back, made me re-read, made me realise the story is about a great loss of innocence in more ways than the obvious – this is the point at which a boy realises he is different from the boys around him. Joyce is terrific on climaxes – you can see this in ‘Araby’, in ‘Eveline’, in ‘The Boarding House’ and, of course, ‘The Dead’.
There are stories that didn’t quite work for me years ago – ‘After the Race’, ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, ‘Grace’ – that I remain (I was going to say ‘impervious to the delights of’ but that isn’t entirely fair on the story or on me) – let’s say less enamoured of or not quite ready for yet. And there are stories – ‘A Little Cloud’, ‘Counterparts’, ‘Clay’ – that seem fresher and more alive than they ever did to me, leaping from the book with all of the force and vigour of a story that was written yesterday (and not 100 years ago, as they were). It’s certainly a book you can go back to (over and over), and interrogate afresh. It’s a work of genius. The work of a genius. A work that can make you laugh and humble you. A work with narratives that floor you. A work with sentences that stop you in your tracks. I’ll leave you with a small sample, a piece of writing that I think is among the greatest ever written:
‘Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark, central plain, on the treeless highs, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
Any Cop?: It’s disrespectful even to ask the question.