Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Dubliners and a Defence of James Joyce: The Dead, Eveline, and Paolo Coelho

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I first read Dubliners a few years ago - probably two - after receiving a hardback Penguin volume for Christmas. I read it whilst on a ski holiday, and, like most people who enjoy it, I was completely engrossed by "The Dead". The ending passage is renowned as being exceptionally beautiful, and it was the leading reason why I wanted to read the collection of short stories.

James Joyce is often affected by the reputation of being difficult to read. I've never been brave enough to read Finnegan's Wake, although I'd like to, and whilst I enjoyed Ulysses very much, many others would follow Paolo Coelho's attack on the text:

Today, writers want to impress other writers. [...] One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce's Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.

This is strong, damning criticism, and I couldn't disagree more with it. Yet a stigma of nonsense and difficulty still surrounds James Joyce, which I see as a shame. I'd like to consider that most of the readers who view Joyce as unreadable have not read Dubliners. Perhaps I am very wrong, judgemental and presuming, but there may well be some truth in my presumption. People often start with Ulysses or Finnegans Wake after receiving the books as a present, or because they foolishly wish to impress someone or other, and after a discouraging start, they are put off the author permanently.

Yet Dubliners is so simple, concise and readable. Joyce does not allude to straight-forward points in an indecipherable style that is about as useful as hieroglyphics; rather, he says it as it is, and he says it directly. In last Saturday's Guardian, I read the following short review by Sebastian Barry, on "Eveline" in Dubliners, in response to being asked his favourite short story:

Finnegans Wake has defeated me, although guilt has driven me to dip into it over the decades. I read Ulysses in a little octagonal house on Omey Island in 1976, but got disenchanted and disheartened at the entrance to Nighttown. I have gone back to it over the years, feeling not only guilty but alarmed. They are the two ticking bombs of Irish literature.

But I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Back Square when I was a student at Trinity College, standing all day in the weak summer sunlight, and crazy in the head with admiration and gratitude at the end of it. Similarly Dubliners, given to me by one of my grandfathers, whose taste otherwise ran to Kipling.

I chose "Eveline" to read because, 40 years later, I am still not over it. The beautiful and threatening set-up, family horrors half-alluded to, and the happinesses so fairly itemised … The "manly" man that comes to rescue her. The full and heartfelt understanding and encouragement of the reader. The scene at the dockside. I am still inclined to cry out the same thing I cried out the first time I read it, aged 17: "Get on the bloody boat, Eveline."

Not only is the collection easy to read, but the stories are beautifully written. For instance, from "Araby", there is the following passage:

When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.

And then there is the ending of "The Dead", which has allowed so many to regain faith in Joyce's capability as a writer. If you wish to read the short story and find out the ending for yourself, look away now! Otherwise, here are the final few sentences:

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 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.

If you have previously sworn an eternal enmity with James Joyce, perhaps reconsider your view of him with the start of a new year. Even if you read just one short story from Dubliners, it may well become a lifelong favourite!


Anonymous said...

I first read Joyce in October when one of my lectures was focused around the concept of epiphany in Joyce's "Araby". I was confused with it, but upon dissection, I discovered how much there was to such a short piece of writing.

So, thank you for this interesting post. There's no way I'll read "Ulysses" anytime soon, though (gladly) I've sworn to read "Dubliners" while I'm still in first year.

I went on to read the articles you refer to, but I would say people are being too hard on Coelho. He is, after all, from a different literary and personal background and he has a different, unbiased, view on the English-language literature. The same applies to the journalist who went on to defend: he is from a different background than Coelho and has a different, unbiased, view on Hispanic literatures. So, criticising or praising classic literature is, I believe, out of place for both of them, because classic lit. should speak for itself. "Ulysses" is universal, thus it attracts different opinions that should not be undermined.

Merry last day of Christmas, Lucy!

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary Lucy.

I have only read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by Joyce.I really liked that work.

I am planning to tackle Ulysses within the next year or two. I really enjoy a challenge when it comes to reading and plan to be prepared with a help guide as well as some preliminary reading so I am optimistic. I also love innovation and creativity even when it yields difficult to appreciate results.

Perhaps I will give Dubliners a try first.

Violet said...

I tend to liken Joyce to Picasso. They both mastered their respective arts when they were young, but went on to explore and explode the conventions and to push the envelope as far as they could.

Joyce was a true genius, I think. Finnegans Wake intrigues me, because there so MUCH in it, but I have only scratched the very surface at the start of the book. It took me ten years and several reads to get comfortable with Ulysses, so I have hope I might make it to the end of FW one day. :)

Dubliners is a wonderful collection of stories which are, to me, the Joycean prototype of what was to come later.

Lucy said...

Ruby - Thank you for your comment. You've made some really interesting points about the articles that I referred to: culture and background really do impact a reading of a text. I agree that Joyce's literature may be hard for some cultures to fully understand, interpret and criticise, but I find it advantageous to read varying interpretations. For instance, the thought of somebody finding Ulysses in a desert, who had never read anything from the classical canon previously, would be so interesting. Sometimes we're a bit too used to what we think literature should be, and become desensitized to all the techniques used.

Perhaps Ulysses is often "pure style", as Coelho says, but that is no reason to necessarily criticise Joyce. However, I would find it equally inappropriate if Coelho were to praise Joyce unduly, perhaps for merely having a famous reputation.

Thanks for giving me something to think about :) All the best for 2013!

Lucy said...

Brian - I too enjoyed The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Considering what else you read, I think that you'd enjoy Ulysses!

A help guide can be really useful when reading such texts, alongside preliminary information etc. Make sure to also approach the text with an open mind - I was pleasantly surprised at how easy I found the text to read! I didn't get bored, that's for sure.

I would also certainly recommend Dubliners :)

All the best for the New Year,


Lucy said...

Violet - thanks for the really insightful comment. Likening Joyce to Picasso adds so much to the interpretation of both artists!

Finnegans Wake fascinates me too. Reading it strikes me as rather like unravelling a puzzle; there's so much to think about and interpret. I enjoyed Ulysses so much because of the real essence of human life that permeates it: the everyday actions, themes of love and death, and the thoughts that run through the minds of characters are all so relatable. I hope that I'd attain something similar from Finnegans Wake, although I imagine that it would take more time!

I agree that Dubliners appears to be written by a writer confident in his art, his intentions, and his capability. Perhaps only an artist like that could go on to experiment so bravely with texts such as Ulysses.

All the best for 2013.