Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dubliners, by James Joyce

One of the things I'd like to do this year is to read the four major works of James Joyce (we'll see how it works out, mind you...). I'm not really sure why. Probably more than a little bravado, I'm sure. But I always felt bad about James Joyce, I'e been kind of unfairly biased - I'm embarrased to say that I read Dubliners once a long time ago, the first half of a chapter of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and nothing else, and the root of my impression of Mr. Joyce comes from (I blush) this line in the Bell Jar where she says she's writing an academic work on Finnegans Wake, and looking up names of obscure Dublin Pubs and such. That just sounded so arrogantly esoteric (Ms Plath being the talented writer that she is managed to make this impression extremely strongly) that I always just sort of made fun of James Joyce without really having the authority to do so. Beyond that, I'm writing a book (yeah don't get excited, going on three years on this one, more if you count the fact that some of it is stolen from old failed book ideas) where a significant number of the chapters are written inside the dreams of two of the characters, and I know this is how the entirety of Finnegans is written - in 'Dreamspeak', Joyce's hodgepodge language for dreams (or so I've heard).

Anyway, so I figured it'd be best, since the four are supposedly quite interrelated, to start at the beginning (plus, taking on Ulysses first is too scary). So I read Dubliners, a collection of his short stories, and the only one of his books, supposedly, that is written in a straightforward style. It's difficult to really give an opinion on the book (ok, well, it's very well written, there's a reason people read these in Short Story classes), partly because so many people, I'm sure, have already given there opinion, but more because it's difficult not to project yourself when you judge it (or at least it is for me). Honestly this was an interesting, new sensation in a well-written book for me - I usually have the opposite issue, of sort of personally dissolving as I read a book, and using the experience of otherness as a coward's escape, sort of, a way to not be, or to be someone who lives so infinitely more beautifully than I do. Joyce doesn't do that. Sometimes, some stories, he does, and these aren't neccesarily badly written ones (the story about the girl who was supposed to run off with her beau, for instance, was beautifully written, and easy to melt into). But many of the others frustratingly resist the efforts of a reader to be within the story. I say frustrating, but it's not neccesarily unrewarding. It was a strange sensation, to see a book that was complete and powerful, but completely alienating. I loved the characters, I desperately wanted to help them, only it wasn't like normal, the sort of feeling I have towards myself, it was the feeling you feel towards your children, or your close friends, the sort of maddening, intense feeling you have towards a real person who has an ideal self that they just seem to refuse to be.

Beyond this, it was interesting to see how present the author was in the book - but again, in a peculiar way. One of Joyce's goals, I'm told, in his later books was to excise himself from the novel as much as possible, to get rid of the ghost character of the author's voice, presenting a version of truth and subtly influencing th reader to a particular conclusion. In this book, you could feel the edges of a man trained to write books in a way they had been written, struggling against that. I cannot imagine trying to write the sort of book Joyce intends to write after growing up on Victorian literature - Jane Eyre is not subtle, for instance, in it's feelings about who is heroic and who is not. You can feel the 'angry revolutionary' in Joyce's writing, struggling against it's bounds, both internal and external,and like all revolutionaries, showing through in a mix of success and failure by way of such a strong attempt at success, sort of the literary equivalent of the heroes of the revolution, sometimes destroying fraternity in their zeal to enforce the unenforceable.

Anyways, a good book, especially for lovers of the Short Story (The Dead, the final story in the collection, is pretty much in the Standard Rep for short stories, I believe, like The Gift of the Magi, or The Tell-Tale Heart, and deservedly so).


Christopher said...

I love Dubliners and I'm making my students read it. I think "The Dead" is probably the best short story ever written.

Amanda said...

You guys are making me curious. I read this in 2001, back when I'd barely begun to read for fun, and didn't enjoy this at all. I wonder if I really wouldn't enjoy this now, or if it had more to do with the fact that I was new to lit, home with a 10-month-old, and reading a book per week that year. I guess I'll see how I feel about Portrait later this year.

Brent Waggoner said...

Definitely save Finnegans Wake for last. I enjoy reading it, but I've never gotten all the way through due to, well, pretty much everything about the book. It's much more of an intellectual exercise than a novel and it's longer than Anna Karenina.

I'm shooting for Ulysses this year, but we'll see.

Rebecca Reid said...

I read Dubliners a few months ago. I can't say I enjoyed reading it, but it was a good experience. I also think The Dead is incredibly well-written but I can't say I love it. If I have a favorite from the volume, I'd say it would be Araby.

I finished reading each story and thought: "That was depressing. I don't think I really got it."

Julie said...

I love what you wrote here:"It was a strange sensation, to see a book that was complete and powerful, but completely alienating." So great! Cool quote!
I think you have a great goal in mind to read the four major works of James Joyce.
Good Luck with this and your writing!

Anonymous said...

Well it won't help your book-read-tally but fans of "The Dead" should not miss "The Ugly" Joycean Anne Pigone's rewrite that takes place 100 years later in Boulder Colorado. The fun thing is every character gets a sex-change. It's easy to find on the net - a free read