Friday, March 14, 2014

Dubliners by James Joyce (8 of 153)

One-Sentence Summary: James Joyce outlines the moral landscape of his beloved city of Dublin in a series
of short stories spanning every social class in the early part of the 20th century.

First Lines (from Two Gallants):
"The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur."
This copy of Dubliners was given to me by the mother of a high-school boyfriend, years and years ago, with very few words. She simply knew that I would like it and she was a warm and thoughtful human being and, years later, I have finally got around to reading all of it and realized what a gift she had given me.

James Joyce writes a different sort of short story than I am used to. I am accustomed to a clear trajectory, a line that is straight from Point A to Point B, all things leading to a clear and concise climax and denouement, all things between informing the end. That is not how the stories in Dubliners unfold. In each is the whole world, and the plots often run still and deep so that the characters and their city can move to the front. Joyce is often a bit of brain work, but it is refreshing to read something critically for symbolism and depth again. I remember reading Araby in high-school for a class and feeling like I had my eyes opened to something. Joyce has that effect.

I don't think it necessary to pontificate on the wonder that is Joyce. There are plenty who could do a far better job at that than I. Still, I hope this is a safe space to say, I found a little humor in reading A Painful Case and The Dead and seeing a bit of the narrator's mind when it came to the elite and the hyper-educated. I think you can guess why I saw the irony in that. Joyce could have written himself into any great intellectual parlor in the land had he meditated on different themes, but he chose to reveal the moral underpinnings of the society from which he came instead. Little has changed in societies, in general. The meditations remain the same: religion, family, love, duty, class, injustice, on and on. The nature of his focus ensures that there is something that remains extremely relevant about Joyce's work.

While Dubliners is technically a short story collection, I think I benefited hugely from reading it as a single entity. There is a flow to the passions when read front to back, from ecstasy to despondency, courage to fear. From disillusioned youth to optimistic age and on and on, expertly ordered and woven. Still, I had my favorites, the ones that struck me most, for this reason or that. They were, and I sure this will change upon re-reading:
Two Gallants
A Painful Case (ouch. ouch. ouch.)
A Mother (I swear, I have met Mrs Kearney)
The Dead

I am trying to purpose to read more short story collections. I fancy myself more naturally bent towards long-form fiction, but I don't really know how true that is. And, as any artist can tell you, it's wise to play with different mediums and not to limit yourself too much. I always think myself incapable of writing short stories until I am reading them. While reading Joyce is almost intimidating, it also reminds me of what the craft can be, what it can reflect, and what it can preserve.

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