Dubliners – James Joyce

21 June 2012
The Sisters, An Encounter, Araby, Eveline
Dubliners set me going as a reader when I was still at school. Throughout my adolescence, I had read almost exclusively science fiction. And then I read these. I’d always liked short stories – all the great science fiction writers wrote them by the bucket-load – but I’d never read anything like these. Joyce seemed to open a window on tiny fragments of ordinary experience, and I was astonished.

The first three could be chapters in a single novel. They are narrated by a boy – not necessarily the same boy – encountering bigger things than he understands in the adult world. In ‘The Sisters’ he is old enough to resent being referred to as a child, but gauche in the presence of death. He doesn’t even understand at first that the retired priest he used to visit really has died, and when he is taken to the house what he is most concerned about is not showing himself up. He refuses a cracker for fear that it will make too much noise as he eats it, is self-conscious about how his responses will look. The experience is not life-changing – it’s the physical effects of death that strike him, like the truculence of the old man’s expression – and in the last pages of the story Joyce moves the focus to ‘the sisters’ and their conversation about the disappointments of the priest’s life. His mistake was to allow the breakage of a chalice, and the congregation seem to accept he had some sort of breakdown. It seems more likely that he was having doubts about his vocation for a religion Joyce presents as unquestioning and superstitious.

I remember ‘An Encounter’ from my first reading of Dubliners. The focus isn’t home and the church this time – although the narrator has time to mention that the least likely candidate for the priesthood among his friends is the one who ‘had a vocation.’ We’re at school, with scholarship boys. Unsurprisingly, their games and misdemeanours are as childish as any boys’. At the centre of the story is a day of truancy with the most daring of them, and… it’s no Tom Sawyer adventure. Nothing happens. They become bored and tired, fail to reach the place they’d been speaking of, and lie down to look over a bank. The ‘encounter’ is with an old man who makes the narrator uneasy for reasons he can’t quite fathom – as none of narrators of these three stories can fathom the mysteries of the alien grown-up world. He asks insinuating questions, smiling and showing the ruins of his teeth to them as he hopes they have lots of sweetherts. He moves off, and the other boy is shocked by what he does alone a short distance away. When he returns – the other boy as wandered off on a pretext – he is now determined that the best thing to do with boys with sweethearts is to whip them. And not just a clip round the ear… and so on. The narrator thinks about the other boy, realises he has ‘always despised him a little.’ Maybe our boy is growing up. Maybe.

In ‘Araby’ the narrator is definitely growing up. He becomes obsessed with the sister of one of his friends, describes, in some detail, the effect she has on him. ‘Araby’ is a bazaar and she suggests they meet there, and he obsesses about it all week. But, somehow, it wouldn’t be a Dubliners story if things turned out well. His uncle forgets he’s promised to give him some money for it and arrives home late. The boy goes anyway, and it’s practically over. As the lights go out his eyes burn ‘with anguish and anger’ at his own vanity. Not easy, adolescence. I’m beginning to get the impression that none of it’s easy in Joyce-land.

So when we find out about the situation in ‘Eveline’ we wonder how it’s going to go wrong. She lives a shitty life, looking after her bully of a widowed father and her two younger siblings. But she’s got a ticket out of there, having met a sailor who has the chance of a new life, with her as his wife, in Buenos Aires. We think – or I think, anyway – oh yeh? He’s obviously a rat, will stand her up at the dock-side. But, reader, he doesn’t, and they live happily ever after.

As if. What really happens is she finds she can’t do it. Giving ‘a cry of anguish’ – that word again – she hears him calling her name. ‘Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.’ Joyce doesn’t tell us why. She can’t leave her family bereft? She doesn’t love the man? She’s simply terrified of a life so far removed from everything she knows? All of these? None? You decide.

The bleak, bare outlines I’ve given here don’t even begin to convey the richness of the textures Joyce achieves. The self-consciousness of boys can be conveyed in the itch of a collar or the warmth of a blush. ‘Stirabout’ for an evening meal – only better food if there are guests – to say nothing of gruel-thin dialogue, capture years of crabbed existence. And there are details of Dublin, less of a city than a town where most things are small-scale and mean.

22 June
After the Race, Two Gallants, The Boarding House, A Little Cloud
Four more stories, and I’m beginning to wonder if Joyce’s project is to do with the ages of man. We’ve already had childhood morphing into adolescence and, in ‘Eveline’, into a desperate womanhood. The main character in ‘After the Race’ is an immature 26-year-old attempting, with the collusion of his father who made his money in the butchery business, to move in more elevated circles. At the deliberately mundane level of all these stories, it’s a disaster. What else would it be? ‘Two Gallants’ – I can’t think of many titles I’d describe as sarcastic, but this is one – is about the sad little efforts of a 30-year-old to do no more than keep his head above water. He connives in a sordid plan of one of his not-quite friends to use a woman to make money. There’s a hint of pimping in an earlier anecdote, and I wonder if that’s what the friend, Corley, is doing. At the end of the story he opens his hand to reveal ‘a small gold coin’.

Money. Success and failure. Reputation. The Dubliners we meet in these stories of 20- and 30-somethings are at the margins. In ‘The Boarding House’ a landlady, whose now estranged husband ruined her prospering business in – wait for it – butchery, seizes an opportunity to marry off her daughter to one of the long-term guests. He is in his 30s, at least ten years older than the daughter. In ‘A Little Cloud’ the perfectly secure, utterly mundane life of a 32-year-old is knocked off-balance by the visit of an old friend with a more exciting life.

Certain threads seem to run through all the stories, but there are as many differences between them as similarities. One is to do with style. Sometimes Joyce is scrupulously neutral. This is certainly true in the first few stories in the collection, in which he seems determined to let the actions and words of the characters do the talking for him. This is still happening in ‘After the Race’, in which the author seems to disappear so that it is the young man’s gaucheness and keenness to please that leads to the inevitable bitterness at the end. What’s really happening, we realise by the time the next story begins, is that Joyce is trying out different techniques. (When I re-read Ulysses recently I tried to think of styles that Joyce didn’t pastiche. I couldn’t think of any.)

The next story is ‘Two Gallants’, and this time there’s definitely a sense of an author hovering by our shoulder, nudging us into making judgments. The narrator will tell us that Corley’s way of sometimes obliging his companion Lenehan to step into the road is a definite sign of his ‘rudeness’. Or he will describe in detail Lenehan’s technique of insinuating himself into conversations in order to be included when somebody buys a round…. It feels like a deliberate return to an older style of narration, as though Joyce is inviting us to make moral judgments. Which, of course, we do. It’s why the title sounds sarcastic. ‘Gallants’ in this context is a word someone might use with heavy irony in an anecdote against two people he doesn’t like.

‘The Boarding House’ feels just as old-fashioned. (Or do I mean anti-modernist? How should I know?) We’re with the landlady as she sees what’s going on between her daughter the lodger, bides her time as she waits for them to be so compromised the man will be forced into marriage. Aside from the risqué nature of the affair – and, I suppose, the low stratum of society it features – the story could have been written a century earlier. Except… Joyce appears deliberately to use a limited vocabulary, and there are hardly any adjectives. And the simplicity hides the smooth way he lets the point of view slide from the mother, to the young man contemplating how trapped he is, to the young woman. And in this last phase Joyce takes us somewhere new with the psychology, as the daughter’s mortification slides seamlessly into the comfortable realisation that her future is secure.

‘A Little Cloud’ starts, like ‘Two Gallants’, with Joyce almost telling us what to think. The smallness of ‘Little Chandler’, his childlike teeth and the narrow routines of his daily life are there to let us know that we can patronise him. The hotel bar where his former friend wants to meet is far beyond his normal scope, as is the kind of drinking the other man is clearly used to. He knows London and Paris, can blithely compare them with other great European cities. And yet, and yet…. Who is this man who mocks everything Chandler has achieved in the eight years since he left? Joyce forces us inside the point of view of the little man so that we realise that his petty-sounding resentments and snobberies are all that he has. He is as good a man as this journalist, he thinks, and what is journalism anyway? It’s poetry that’s the thing, and that’s what he intends to publish. But there’s no evidence of him having ever written anything, and he is beginning to seem desperate. At home, fired up with the whiskey, he rows with his wife and makes his little child cry as he tries to read from his copy of Byron. It’ll end in tears. It does end in tears.

24 June
Counterparts, Clay, A Painful Case
These stories aren’t getting any sunnier. Drinking, which first raises its ugly head in ‘Eveline’ – her father is only ‘bad’ when he drinks, but that is almost every night – and is the reason why the landlady’s butchery business failed in ‘The Boarding House’ reaches a kind of apotheosis in ‘A Counterpart’. It’s as though Joyce sets himself the talk of describing, from the inside, a typical Dublin night on the booze. The man involved begins during the day, sneaking off for a crafty half of porter and failing to get his office work done. The row he has with his boss turns into an anecdote once he’s out with his mates, having pawned his watch. And… cut to the end of the story, as he beats his son with a stick for having let the fire go out under his dinner. In the last sentence he is ignoring the boy’s pleading offer to say a Hail Mary for him.

‘Clay’ – and I still haven’t worked out what the title is about – closes everything down. There’s another tiny main character, a woman this time, self-effacing to the point of invisibility. One man’s kindness on the tram, as all the other men have failed to notice her standing there laden with bags, is enough to make her forget the cake she’d bought for somebody else’s children. In a party game the children play a silly trick on her – is it clay they make her reach for, blindfolded? – then she sings a song. By the end of it all she disappears from the story altogether, as her brother (I think) searches for the corkscrew. Ye gods.

‘A Painful Case’…. Do I need to say any more? The story opens with a description of where one man lives in ‘an old sombre house’ far enough from Dublin for him to be comfortable. It’s all blacks and whites, except, if I remember rightly, a black and scarlet cloth. We wonder where the colour is in this colourless man, too controlled to accept the affection a woman offers him. He is repelled, breaks off the developing relationship which had been entirely non-physical until then. Some years later she is killed on a railway line, and there is enough in the report on the inquest to suggest suicide. The coroner describes it as ‘a painful case’, but we know this phrase has another meaning in the story. At first the man is almost relieved at having saved himself from a life with such an unstable woman, but a realisation slowly creeps up on him. ‘Why had he withheld life from her? … He felt his moral nature falling to pieces.’ He imagines that he can feel her presence, hear her voice. And then, when he doesn’t, ‘He felt he was alone.’ What’s this? Existential angst?

Well, yes, I think it is. Is there anybody who isn’t alone in the universe Joyce is creating? For instance, the first flush of self-consciousness of the boy in ‘The Sisters’, the horror of choosing for oneself an unknown future in ‘Eveline’, the determination to disappear, and to be defined by tiny acts of helpfulness, in ‘Clay’. But Joyce’s characters have to live in a real world he scrupulously builds around them: a city has never seemed more palpable than Dublin in these stories. How to present the self, forever isolated, in a world that demands something from us? Turn it into stories like the drunk in ‘Counterparts’, presenting a severe reprimand as a proof of his own skill in repartee? Create a fantasy of high-flown poetry-writing to outdo the scribblings of the more successful friend in ‘A Little Cloud’? Re-create yourself for the price of a pint as a bloke who’s fun to talk to in ‘Two Gallants’? Or isolate yourself behind a protective veneer like the man in ‘A Painful Case’ – only to discover you’re on the edge of an abyss?

All these things. They aren’t easy to read in quick succession, these stories, but taken together they build, as though in layers, into a way of examining what it is like to be human. I haven’t come across anything like them before.

26 June
Ivy Day in the Committee Room, A Mother, Grace
Following the rising existential despair of the previous three or four stories, the change in focus in these three feels deliberate. Dublin life, instead of being a carefully drawn background, is suddenly at the centre. In a city you rub up against a lot of people you might or might not get along with, and that’s what ‘Ivy Day’ and a Mother’ are largely about. And the focus changes in another way: we’re no longer locked inside one point of view. The narrator becomes an observer, listening in on conversations among what suddenly seem like large casts of characters.

Joyce has placed his narrator into the role of mere observer in previous stories, often focusing on how the characters look: Lenehan’s shabby jauntiness and the way he composes his face into appropriate expressions in ‘Two Gallants’; the smallness of Little Chandler in ‘A Little Cloud’ and Maria in ‘Clay’. But he takes it further in the opening paragraphs of ‘Ivy Day’, with descriptions of two men that turn them into figures in a painting of ordinary life, perhaps a Van Gogh or Cezanne. As old Jack fans the flames of a meagre fire ‘his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall, and his face slowly re-emerged into light.’ Is this post-Impressionism? Or Joyce’s pastiche of an earlier literary style – something we know he enjoys? It could be straight out of Dickens or George Eliot.

Whatever. Joyce swiftly moves it in a different direction anyway, as the two men in the Committee Room have a desultory conversation, and the story becomes – what? – a satirical take on Irish political activism. The ancient caretaker and the canvasser who doesn’t fancy going out in the ‘inclement weather’ are joined by others, one by one. To cut a long story short – it’s the longest in the collection so far – they talk a lot, have opinions about everyone and everything and… do nothing. The only useful suggestion anyone makes concerns a trick to remove corks from the inevitable bottles of stout. It turns into a comfortable afternoon drinking session. It’s Ivy Day – the anniversary of the death of Parnell, and the great Irish hero becomes as much a subject of their often jaded gossip as anyone else. The story ends with a sentimentally elegiac poem about the death of ‘Our Uncrowned King’ with its vague hope that a phoenix will rise from the flames…. It’s dreadful, obviously, but it subdues the gossip as everyone agrees what a fine piece of writing it is. Joyce the observer makes no comment. He doesn’t need to.

‘A Mother’ is shorter and more focused as Joyce takes another wry look at how things are done in Dublin. The context this time is a short series of poorly organised evening concerts, and it’s the closest we’ve come to outright comedy. Ok, not that close… but there’s the self-conscious tenor, the self-taught baritone – and the pushy mother. The concerts, over four consecutive nights, are going badly. A possibly fictitious committee – and what is it with committees in this world? – regrets spreading the talent too thinly and cancels the third night’s concert. But the daughter’s contract is for eight guineas over four nights, and she must be paid… and so on. The mother alienates everyone, even the man who usually does her bidding. He sends her packing. As he limps through an unglamorous life on his game leg – Joyce loves these little markers – it’s a unaccustomed triumph. ‘”You did the proper thing, Holohan,” said Mr O’Madden, poised upon his umbrella in approval.’

‘Grace’ – like ‘Clay’, perhaps – has a title full of meaningful resonances. At first we’re on familiar territory. A man has hurt himself falling downstairs following a drinking session – he’s even bitten off a small piece of his tongue – and his long-suffering wife is tolerant of his late arrival home. In an earlier, shorter story in the collection we might have been in for a slide into a familiar abyss. But no. Instead, friends launch a rescue as he recuperates in bed, coming up with a stratagem to save him from himself. He will come with them on a retreat to help him mend his ways. There’s some discussion around his bed concerning Catholic theology – the man is a reluctant convert – and it’s as circular as the political talk in ‘Ivy Day’. No surprise there, then. The story ends some days later. We’re part-way through a sermon in which a Jesuit priest develops a metaphor suitable for those present – ‘you’re all men of the world’ – based on the idea of book-keeping. ‘With God’s grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts.’ The end.

What? What? It’s another of Joyce’s satires, like the poem at the end of ‘Ivy Day’. All the careful planning by the man’s friends to get this part-time believer to face up to his responsibilities comes down, as far as I a see, to nothing of any use.

27 June
The Dead
Is the whole collection leading up to this? How else would a contemplation on the ages of man and the human condition end but with the snow ‘faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead’? Did you get that? All.

As so often, we think we know where we are when this story opens. It’s an annual New Year’s party among the middle classes, with the focus on nobody in particular. There’s the vaguely dissatisfied maid, the elderly sisters whose party this is, the pompous man and his rather attractive, more straightforward wife. And plenty of others, like the musical niece and the young men who enter the room only at the end of her recital to be seen applauding, the middle-aged man to be kept on the wagon despite himself for the sake of his old mother, also present. And so on, for 30-odd pages of a 40-odd page story.

The focus has narrowed before the goodnights ten pages from the end, and we are following the thoughts of Gabriel. He’s the man who had seemed pompous and faintly ridiculous from the start, removing his galoshes and fussing over his wife. He frets about the speech he is to give, as usual, wonders if the quotation from Browning might be above the heads of the company and make him seem like a know-it-all. Sometimes he drifts to the window to contemplate the weather outside, which is bad: there is snow all over Ireland, someone has said, and he imagines what it would be like out there. Preferable to indoors, he thinks. He manages to have a silly row with a pro-Ireland woman who calls him a ‘West Briton’ for writing for the Daily Express, irritates her by refusing her offer of a summer stay in the Aran Islands because he prefers a cycling holiday in France and Belgium with his pals. His wife, from the West herself, would have liked to go to Aran, she says. He wonders if he could get a dig at the woman into his speech.

The spread is superb, the speech, presented verbatim, is as we would expect… and it’s time to go. But his wife is still upstairs. She is listening to the tenor, who has not performed tonight because of a cold, hoarsely singing a song of loss and grief. She recognises it, asks him the title. And, eventually and after much hilarity, several of them are sharing the only cab that anyone could find. The end.

Except it isn’t the end, because Joyce takes it somewhere entirely different. Gabriel, flushed with success after the meal and his speech, has been remembering the early days of their courtship all the way to the hotel where they are staying. We are undeniably in the company of the author of Ulysses as his thoughts become full of lust. He weighs up his chances of success tonight, starts to calculate his moves even before he is alone with his wife in the hotel room. But once there he’s nervous, makes a silly, irrelevant remark about some money he’d lent. When his wife responds kindly and tells him how generous he is, he is suddenly ‘trembling with delight’ at the kiss she gives him.

But he isn’t in the story he thinks he’s in. This isn’t the meeting of souls – ‘Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his’ – but the opposite, proof of how separate each person is from every other in the world Joyce presents us with. He realises her thoughtful mood has nothing to do with him, as she tells him a story he has never heard before. The song that the tenor was singing was one she remembers ‘a person’ singing before she came to Dublin… and Gabriel’s hackles begin to rise. The person, inevitably, was a young man she used to walk with. It all seems innocent enough – unlike Gabriel, she seems to spend no time calculating the effect of her words – and nothing came of it. She is surprised when her husband, jealous now, suggests she wants to go to the West coast to meet him again. He’s dead – and she thinks it was love of her that helped to kill him. The song refers to rain falling on ‘heavy locks’, and the boy – he was only 17 when he died – came to stand in the rain outside her window the night before she was due to leave. He was already ill, and died within a week.

There’s no air left in Gabriel. What can he do now but let her sleep and think ruefully about how little he has offered this woman compared to the love of a man who had no wish to stay alive without her? And in his thoughts, as he ticks off those who are dead or soon will be – one of the sisters ‘had that haggard look’ tonight – he has an inescapable intimation of mortality. The whole of the last page of the story, especially coming after what has mainly been a fairly light comedy of manners, is one of the most extraordinary endings in any fiction I know.


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