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The Spyglass of Tranquil Recollection

There are books which sit on our bookshelves for years, getting slightly more foxed as time passes. My Dubliners has followed me to five different addresses and, although a rather flimsy paperback (picked up second-hand, I see, for 1s 6d), remains in fairly decent condition. It was published in 1947 for Jonathan Cape by Guild Books, an imprint of the Publishers’ Guild ‘dedicated to bringing out the best from the lists of the twenty-six members’.

I like the idea of trying to capture the spirit of a place through a series of stories such as Dickens’s sketches of London life, Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories and Jack London’s tales of San Francisco. Joyce wrote almost all his Dubliners’ stories away from Ireland and, like most of his work, they focus unremittingly on a brief period at the turn of the twentieth century – years around which the whole of his imaginative life revolved.

The book, first published belatedly in 1914, was not only controversial for its time but led directly to Ulysses. However, it was an achievement in its own right, the work of a man in his early twenties, written in short energetic bursts, and including one of the best stories in the language, ‘The Dead’. It was also a tribute to Nora Barnacle, the young woman who had bravely eloped with him into exile.

Dubliners has the additional interest of embodying Joyce’s notion of ‘epiphany’ – that delicate and evanescent moment of revelation which it was, he thought, the duty of writers to capture. So, all the characters and stories are based on people and incidents noted by him as a young man about town. Identifying ‘who was who’ in each story became a literary sport, especially among Joyce’s Irish acquaintances and his various biographers, as it did later with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

The subtlety of these stories lies in the way Joyce sets the often unstable consciousness of his characters against the gritty background of a real city. Perhaps because of his interest in the epiphany he tends here to capture a mood rather than tell a neatly parcelled story. This was unusual for either Irish or English short stories at that time and it is unsurprising to learn that a major influence in writing them was Maupassant. Their unrelenting realism also owes much to Ibsen and was intended, he said, to compel the Irish to examine their own souls in the mirror of his prose.

I read Dubliners when I first acquired my copy, but, as often happens, the detail had faded. Rediscovering it brought home Joyce’s youthful brilliance. Edna O’Brien has written of the ‘eerie delicacy’ of the stories, and some such air of nervous fragility does indeed hang over them. Perhaps this is because they all embody fast-receding memory – most having been written a thousand miles away in Trieste after Joyce quit Ireland in 1904. Here then, Dublin is more than usually a city observed through the spyglass of tranquil recollection.

Speaking of Ulysses, Joyce told a friend, ‘I tried to give the colour and tone of Dublin with my words; the drab, yet glistening atmosphere of Dublin, its hallucinatory vapours, its tattered confusion, the atmosphere of its bars, its social immobility – they could only be conveyed by the texture of my words. Thought and plot are not so important as some would make them out to be. The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion.’ He could have said much the same about Dubliners.

Unlike Dickens’s London, Joyce’s Dublin is confined to a class trapped between wealth and poverty – the dispossessed bourgeoisie, lacking both power and prospects.

The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures – on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens. He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.

The stories reflect Joyce’s personal obsessions – fear of betrayal, the unfulfilled marriage, sexual frustration, thwarted ambition, the smothering effects of religion, cruel and casual bigotry, the wretchedness of wasted lives. The distinctly plain and pared-down prose of Dubliners he called ‘a style of scrupulous meanness’, but the spirit of compassion and imaginative empathy for his often-flawed characters is far from mean. This effect he achieves in part through the ‘interior monologue’ which he used most notably later in Ulysses.

Because they are figures in a comedy, characters in Ulysses rarely excite pity, but there is hardly a story in Dubliners that fails to include figures inviting sympathy. The tiny ill-favoured workhouse laundress who at a children’s party becomes the victim of a cruel joke, the hapless lodger inveigled into marriage, the poor girl who shrinks at the last moment from an elopement, the envious youth in awe of his suave companion’s powers of seduction, a would-be poet bedazzled by a friend’s boasts of wild times in London and Paris.

Joyce was clearly fascinated by the seamy underside of respectability. In ‘The Sisters’ the death of an old priest evokes in a young boy’s mind a stream of associations – a meditation on the loneliness of a mind steeped in theological intricacy and burdened, it seems, with undisclosed sin. ‘Araby’ tells of a boy, besotted by a friend’s sister and hoping to impress her with a gift from a charity bazaar, arriving there too late and short of money. In ‘Two Gallants’, a couple of ne’er-dowells set out callously to con a susceptible housemaid. ‘A Painful Case’ describes how a respectable but insensitive young man drifts into a relationship with a married woman and probably precipitates her suicide.

Undoubtedly the most perfect and most moving story in Dubliners is ‘The Dead’, the story of Gabriel Conroy’s painful discovery that his wife, Gretta, has had a secret, unforgettable lover – a consumptive boy (Michael Furey) who died shortly after lingering at her gate one freezing night to confess his love. It was for her, she believes, that he died. This haunting memory, evoked by a song, leaves the wife overcome with guilt and sorrow, and her husband stricken by a sense of loss.

Joyce shows perfect mastery of atmosphere and moment in creating the prelude to this sad anti-climax – a Christmas occasion of good cheer, lively gossip, music and dancing, culminating in evocations of past delights and long dead pleasures. Following this brilliantly achieved climax, the poignancy of Gretta’s bleak memory and Gabriel’s bitter realization brings both ‘The Dead’ and the whole collection to a sublime if melancholy conclusion.

The story’s exquisite finale captures a sense of general despair – the snow-covered landscape mirroring also a man’s desolation, his empty marriage and a nation rendered sterile. It is Joyce’s vision of the Ireland, crushed by British imperialism and suffocating religion, from which he had so recently escaped.

Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, 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.

Joyce told his publisher, Grant Richards, ‘My intention . . . was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of
paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.’

He wrote no further short stories. For him Dubliners was a phase in his writing career which was over and done with. Those of his admirers who expressed disappointment when he began the labyrinthine Finnegans Wake, wondering why he did not write another Ulysses, received a similar response. He never went back, once quoting Pontius Pilate to emphasize the point – ‘What I have written, I have written.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Gordon Bowker 2008

About the contributor

All of Gordon Bowker’s biographical subjects – Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell and George Orwell – were driven partly by reading James Joyce to seek inspiration abroad. He, too, once planned to exchange this dull clime for a life of literary exile – the subject of his next book – but never got beyond a bed-sit in exotic SW3.

Comments & Reviews

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  1. Keith J. Kelly says:

    My late wife and I would read The Dead every Christmas season. Then most years watch the John Huston film version.

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