The Spyglass of Tranquil Recollection

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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

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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.

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