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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 15 January 2016

"Dubliners" by James Joyce

Dubliners is a book of short stories written by the incomparable James Joyce, master of language, and published in 1914.

Cliffs Notes has a full glossary for Dubliners here:

The Sisters
This is narrated by a boy who lives with his uncle and aunt and concerns the death of an old priest who had taught the boy, of whom the boy was fond. He has expected the priest's death but hears the news from Old Cotter who hints that there was something wrong about his relationship with the priest. The next day he goes with his aunt to the house and meets Nannie and Eliza, the sisters of the title (and the sisters of the deceased priest), who talk about the events leading to the priest's death.

Joyce is brilliant at authentic dialogue. He uses no obvious markers for dialect but you can hear the Irish in phrases such as:

  • Education is all very fine and large
  • Ah, there's no friends like the old friends ... when all is said and done, no friends that a body can trust
  • So one night he was wanted for to go on a call

He is also a master of tantalising. In the third paragraph Old Cotter says that "there was something uncanny" about the priest but it is not till the end of the story we discover the incident that made Cotter think this. On the second page, the narrator remarks that "I knew that I was under observation" but he fails to say why.

He is also the master of description. The priest takes snuff but his hand trembles and he spills it. The narrator is distracted from prayer because he notices the old woman's clothing: "how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down all to one side."

He can also say things without saying them. Eliza tells how Father O'Rourke took charge of everything, including the insurance and when 'my aunt' says "wasn't that good of him" Eliza shakes her head and says:  "Ah, there's no friends like the old friends ... when all is said and done, no friends that a body can trust". Clearly Eliza doesn't trust Father O'Rourke!

And Joyce beautifully mixes modes. The news of the death, a spiritual passage, is delivered by a man puffing on his pipe to a boy eating his stirabout. His uncle's speech contrasts the physical (boxing, taking exercise, cold baths) with the spiritual (Rosicrucian, Education). And why does the narrator tiptoe into the room where the corpse lies, why does he worry that eating crackers might make too much noise, why, after Eliza has talked of her brother's breakdown, does she stop and listen, as if the corpse will make a comment?

In An Encounter two schoolboys play truant and encounter a strange man who talks of boys and sweethearts and of whipping bad boys and how he would like to whip a boy, "there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that."

Again, this isn't really a story, for nothing is resolved; it is more of a vignette. But Joyce sketches pictures so compellingly.

I liked the way he used adjectives: one only to a noun. Because he can only use one adjective it has to be exactly the right one. When each noun has its own perfect adjective, the paragraph is painted with the apparent minimum of artifice.

I loved the ending. The narrator has to make an excuse to get away from the weird man; he calls his friend who comes to him. "He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little." At the end of a story about one thing, a single sentence opens up a new dimension to explore.

In Araby a young boy fancies a girl. She isn't allowed to go the Araby bazaar at the weekend so he promises he will go and bring something back for her. But his uncle (he lives with his uncle and aunt) forgets and returns home late and he can only get to the bazaar when it is closing. It isn't as magical as it seems, the man at the turnstile looks weary, many stalls are closed, the lights are going off, the lady who asks if he wants to buy anything is not encouraging. He buts nothing

This is a poignant story; we have all experienced the timidity of youth. But it is also about how are illusions about the world of adulthood are destroyed by the mundaneness of reality.

Ironically, Joyce turns the everyday into magic with his pitch-perfect descriptions. The girl he admires can make him tingle with excitement: "my body was like a harp and her gestures were like fingers running upon the wires." Streets flare, street-singers chant nasally, cold air stings and houses on either side of a street "gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces." The perfect adjective turns prose to poetry.

I know this feeling! In Eveline "she looked around the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from." In wonder if Joyce knew that it was mostly from her own dead skin cells, discarded and shed when they were no longer needed. That would be a story!

The woman considers leaving the house in which she grew up, leaving her job at the Stores, leaving her father who has always been angry since his wife died and who makes her life so hard, to run away with Frank, a sailor, on the boat to Buenos Aires. She gets as far as the barrier but, in the end, she cannot leave it all behind.

After the Race follows the fortune of Jimmy Doyle, a young Irishman, "too excited to be genuinely happy", who is honoured to be riding in the back of a French car in the race; his rich butcher father intends that he shall invest in the car salesroom that the driver intends to start. The young men (there are two others, and later and fifth and a sixth) celebrate the race and one thing leads to another and they drink and party and drink and row out to a yacht and drink and make speeches and have a little supper and drink and gamble. And of course Doyle loses.

This is Joyce being political. In the opening paragraph, the spectators "raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed"; they cheer for their friends, the French. Doyle's father, when young, was "an advanced Nationalist" but "modified his views" in order to make money, including from police contracts. Doyle, while drunk, "made a speech, a long speech" which "must have been a good speech" because they clapped when he sat down and they together drink toasts to "Ireland, England, France, Hungary, the United States of America." But in the end the losers are the American and the Irishman. This is about how Ireland is gulled and cheated and taken advantage of.

In Two Gallants, Lenehan, a man with no obvious means of support who often sponges drinks in pubs, is admiring Corley who is boasting about a romantic conquest he has made, a tart who brings him presents. Corley meets her and Lenehan has to kill the time until he returns from his escapade. He is hungry so he goes into a working-man's cafe and, after enquiring the price, buys a plate of peas and a ginger beer. He wonders if Corley has transacted his business with the "slavey". He talks to other friends and wanders around until it is time to meet up with Corley again. He sees Corley with the woman and has a premonition that the mission has failed. At last he meets up with Corley to discover...

Another beautiful story told with perfect observation. The down at heel gentility of the men, desperate to try anything, is at perfect odds with the description of them as gallants. Their characters are beautifully described. The twist comes in the very last line and makes you reappraise the situation perfectly. But the magic of the prose is the perfect way in which he describes everything. This is a really thin story, as underfed as Lenehan, but each detail is perfectly placed. You can build your own story (which he destroys at the end) exactly because he has laid the foundations so carefully. My favourite moment is when Lenehan watches Corley and the unnamed girl returning and observes how "Corley's head ... turned at every moment towards the young woman's face like a big ball revolving on a pivot." This moment of exquisite observation puts Corley perfectly as the supplicant while offering a dehumanised analogy. Wonderful.

Mrs Mooney who runs The Boarding House watches as her daughter, Polly, flirts with Mr Doran. When she judges that he is in so deep that he must marry, she asks to see her. The best description in this relatively simple tale is of the breakfast table at the boarding house: "covered with plates on which lay yellow streaks of eggs with morsels of bacon-fat and bacon-rind"

A Little Cloud follows Little Chandler; he has met his old pal Ignatius Gallaher who is now a journalist in London back in Dublin for a few days to patronise his old mates. Chandler wishes he were like his old friend and is resentful; surely he could have done better for himself. He goes home to his wife and has to look after the baby while she pops out for a few groceries; the child cries and Chandler is angry at which point it starts to scream. She is accusing when she returns and he cries secret tears of remorse.

Surely only Joyce could write about posh women in "noisy dresses" who "caught up their dresses, when they touched earth, like alarmed Atlantas" thus mingling acute observation of human foibles with myth. Or write about slum housing as "a band of tramps, huddled together along the river-banks ... stupefied by the panorama of sunset."

Deoc an doruis is Irish Gaelic for 'a drink at the door' ie the last drink before parting.

"Stupefied by the panorama of sunset". What a phrase!

Counterparts. Farrington is a clerk in an office. He has failed to finish copying some correspondence and is hauled over the coals by his boss who is physically much smaller and weaker than him. When he returns to his place he needs a drink and sneaks out of the office; he is a little tipsy when he returns and cannot concentrate properly; he sends the paperwork up to his boss incomplete. Found out, he resorts too cheek and is forced to apologise. That evening he pawns his watch for some drinks. He has a good time but he is defeated by a younger man in arm wrestling.Drunk, angry and resentful he returns home to find his wife out and his son, one of five children, who is supposed to cook Farrington his dinner has let the fire go out. As he beats his son with his stick the boy cries: "I'll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don't beat me ... I'll say a Hail Mary ..."

Pathetic. Empathy.

In Clay, Maria, who works at the laundry, has the evening off to see her family; it is not clear whether she is a sister, an aunt or a mother. She takes them plumcake but it is stolen from her by a man in a tram. Because it is Hallow Eve they play games: she is blindfolded and made to feel something squidgy but the room goes quiet and when she tries again she finds a prayer book. She sings a song and Joe, her brother, nephew or son, is moved to tears.

A Painful Case follows Mr James Duffy, a bank clerk who leads a quiet life with his work, his lunch, his dinner and his books. One day he meets a married woman with her daughter; over the next few months he meets the mother more and more and more until she betrays the idea that she wants something physical and he breaks it off. She is interested in his thought and his writing and asks why he doesn't publish and he tells her he would not "submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios."

Four years later he reads in the paper of her death, run over by a train, possibly suicide. He walks in the Park and sees the recumbent bodies of lovers at the bottom of the slope "in the shadow of the wall". He realises that "he was an outcast from life's feast." He realises that he will die unmourned, unremembered. It ends when the feeling he has had that she is somehow with him ends. "He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone."

It's a wonderful end. When her spirit leaves him you feel that he might be at peace but then the final sentence condemns him to the hell of loneliness.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room starts with O'Connor warming himself by the fire which Old Jack, the steward, is struggling to keep going; O'Connor should be out canvassing for Tricky Dicky Tierney but it is cold and wet so he is skiving off, although he still has hopes of being paid. Old Jack is worried about his drunkard nineteen-year-old son. Hynes arrives and argues with Old Jack about the relative merits of Tierney, a publican, and Colgan, a "good, honest bricklayer". Colgan, Hynes opines, will not toady up to Edward Rex (Edward VII is to visit Dublin, setting the story before 1907). Now Henchy, another canvasser for Tierney, arrives; he is also worried about whether Tierney will pay. Hynes goes and Henchy wonders whether he is a "spy for the other camp". Father Keon comes in; he is very timid and looking for Fanning; when invited to come in or to sit down he says "no, no, no" and he is desperate to be of no trouble. He goes. Shortly some bottles of stout arrive. The men have to borrow a corkscrew to open them and when more fellows arrive after the corkscrew is sent back they open them by putting the bottles by the fire until the cork pops out. The men start to discuss politics and remember Parnell (they wear Ivy in their buttonholes; Ivy Day, 6th October, is in memory of Irish Nationalist MP Charles Stewart Parnell who led calls for Irish Home Rule as an MP in the House of Commons until 1890 when he lost the support of the RC Church following the exposure of his long adulterous affair with Kitty O'Shea; Parnell died in 1891). At the end of the story Hynes recites a poem he has written (in iambic tetrameters) in honour of Parnell.

This story demonstrates Joyce's mastery of dialogue. The shifting population of men discuss shifting topics. What they mean is not always clear from what they say but what they say reveals something of their inner thoughts. Many of the sentences are constructed so as to suggest their dialect:

  • "Fanning has such a loan of him"
  • "I'm greatly afraid our friend is not nineteen carat."
  • "Only I'm an old man now I'd change his tune for him."
  • "in all my vermin"

The secret is to add a word that is out of place or to tweak the word order of the sentence so that what might otherwise be a cliche becomes fresh and new and noticeable. He also does this with his descriptions, eg "Imminent little drops of rain hung at the brim of his hat". Another technique he enjoys is to conjoin two contradictory things: Old Jack has a bony, hairy face with moist eyes and a moist mouth. O'Connor speaks in a "husky falsetto". The apologetic priest "opened his very long mouth suddenly to express disappointment and at the same time opened wide his very bright blue eyes to express pleasure and surprise". The priest himself is enigmatic: as a representative of the Church who brought down Parnell and so split the Nationalists, he should be expected to be dominant rather than submissive; the men don't know what he stands for.

Mrs Kearney is A Mother. She is determined that her daughter should be paid the eight guineas agreed to accompany verious singers at the four Irish Revival concerts. But Mt Holohan and Mr Fitzpatrick are hopeless organisers and they simply haven't drawn in the customers. The first two concerts happens, feeless, and the third is cancelled but Mrs Kearney will not permit anyone onstage at the fourth concert until her daughter is paid. At last four pounds are produced but in the end the standoff backfires; it is doubted that Miss Kearney will ever get another booking in Dublin. So the incompetent flourish at the expense of the righteously indignant.

Mr Kearney is a shadowy figure but we learn, delightfully, that "his conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard."

A man is found bleeding at the foot of some stairs in a bar. The barmen (Joyce calls the 'curates') help to revive him and he is put into a cab and taken home; it appears that his wife and children have been waiting for him to bring home some money. So his friends decide to persuade him to go back to church, hoping that he will then lead a better life. Most of this short story is taken up with them promoting their subterfuge at his bedside.

Wonderful phrases include:

  • "The ring of onlookers distended and closed again elastically" (at the moment when medical attention is required!
  • "His line of life had not been the shortest distance between two points." Whose is?
  • "M'Coy, who wanted to enter the conversation by any door, pretended that he had never heard the story." We've all done this!
  • "He took up the bottle and helped others to a little more, Mr M'Coy, seeing that there was not enough to go round, pleaded that he had not finished his first measure. The others accepted under protest." We all know someone like M'Coy.
The Dead starts with the sentence: "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet." which makes it an early misuse of the word 'literally'. It concerns a Christmas party where relatives and friends gather and relax and enjoy music, food, dancing and drink together. But there is always an undercurrent of tension. Freddy is drunk when he arrives and is only encouraged by the hard-drinking Mr Browne. Gabriel, the star of the party, quarrels with Miss Ivors who has decided political views; she leaves the party early. Lily the maid is bitter about men trying to take advantage of her although we never learn any details behind a moment's outburst. And Gabriel's wife, Gretta, whom he adores ("A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart") is mourning for the love of her life, a young boy who loved her when she was a fresh maid; he died. It seems that Joyce is saying that we are all palimpsests: behind all that we say and do now are the memories of the people we have known and the people we have been.

Irish fiction reviewed in this blog:
  • Strumpet City by James Plunkett: a book about the poor in Dublin in the early 20th Century
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the sequel to Angela's Ashes: an Irish exile in New York
  • Dubliners by James Joyce: the classic short stories
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgworth: a classic first published in 1800
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: a boy grows up in Ireland
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan: set in the recession of the early 21st Century

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