Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Dubliners - James Joyce


In musical terms, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners by James Joyce are overtures whilst Ulysses is the full oratorio in excelsis deo. Finnegan's Wake is free jazz. The thing about all these works is that they're all masterpieces in their own distinct ways, with Joyce never putting a foot (or a word) wrong.
What is also interesting is that Joyce wrote all these books (particularly Ulysses) whilst living in desperate poverty, which tells us great art is not borne from material wealth and the comfort of riches but from adversity and (more often than not) a plebeian imagination. Moreover, what is doubly interesting is that the works of James Joyce have nowadays been claimed by academia and a self-proclaimed cultural elite as their own; proclaiming Joyce's books as being far too difficult for the non-University educated to even contemplate reading. It's called cultural appropriation.

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories first published in 1914 though written some years earlier, all being snapshots of life and events in Dublin during that period. Such is the brilliance of Joyce's writing that it's like putting a magnifying glass to these snapshots to show the finer detail, each detail being a universe unto itself.
Each story is distinctly different, the common theme between them being that for the main protagonist in each, it is a significant yet not fully realised event that is being captured. An additional yet more subtle spin at the end of each signifying another realisation that is unspoken yet just as if not more important.

So, in the story The Sisters, for example, a young man's (Joyce?) old vicar friend passes away and whilst hiding his own feelings so as not to betray how important the vicar was to him, records the thoughts and sentiments of those around him regarding the death. More significant is the revelation at the end that the vicar had been found alone one night in the confession-box of the chapel, laughing softly to himself. It was this that suggested to friends and family that there was 'something gone wrong with him'.
In the story The Encounter, two young boys (one of them Joyce?) bunk off from school and during the course of their day encounter a man who in the words of one of the boys is 'a queer old josser'. A pervert, in other words. The importance of the day and the experience of it is conveyed but more significant is when one of the boys (Joyce?) finds himself relieved to see the return of his friend after being left alone for some minutes with the man because in his heart he had always despised his friend a little.
In the story Counterparts, a man bullied by his employer takes a stand and humiliates him in front of others before dining out on the story in the local bars with all his friends. More significantly, he returns home that night and beats one of his children with a stick for letting the fire in the kitchen hearth go out.

Joyce casts no aspersions upon the characters in these stories but by revealing an additional insight into their lives - and significantly their inner lives - he shines a whole new light upon them. What he so beautifully describes in his writing is the life going on in the outer world but then shines his light upon the inner life. The life that might appear smaller and less significant than the outer one but that is actually far more expansive and much more meaningful.

To continue the music analogy, reading Dubliners is like listening to an LP, with each separate story being akin to an individual song. Any good LP can be listened to either as a collection of different tracks or as a complete piece, and with any good LP there is always going to be favourite tracks. So too with Dubliners there are also favourite stories, most people's being the one that brings it to an end, entitled The Dead.

According to the New York Times, The Dead is 'just about the finest short story in the English language'. According to Evan Dando (of 1990s alt-Punk band The Lemonheads) 'For me, it's all about the Dubliners by James Joyce. I love The Dead'. According to Will Self, Dubliners is 'startling'.
Being non-University educated and therefore unable to even contemplate reading Joyce, I hesitate in laying down any such similar grandiose declaration because I feel I've just not read enough short stories in my time to compare (and I've read a few). I would say, however, that The Dead is far better than that other much-lauded short story, The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I would also say that The Dead is a thing of beauty that in the sublime vision it presents, paints a picture of the universe that could be compared to Van Gogh's The Starry Night.
The Dead is the true precursor to Ulysses where Joyce zooms into the detail of the finite then out to the infinite; weaving time, heartache, exaltation and memory into a seamless narrative. If The Dead was a record then it would stand the test of time and be passed on from generation to generation, appreciated by all.
Forever and ever.

John Serpico

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