Monday, 7 April 2008

Dubliners. Because I don't just do lowbrow...

I think of myself as widely read - not well read, because I think of that as a near impossible feat, there'll always be authors and/or genres that elude even the most catholic reader, whether it be scary doorstops such as War and Peace and Ulysses, Jeffery Archer's potboilers, Eastern European literature, ghostwritten celebrity cash ins, science fiction or the much derided Mills & Boon romances. There just isn't the time (nor breadth of interest) to try everything. But there's plenty of 'classics' I haven't read, either through allergy to other works (Sense and Sensibility's just a tad too smug for me to contemplate any more Jane Austen) or just not getting round to them (the likes of D.H. Lawrence). James Joyce fell into the latter category for me, reading his earliest 'classic' would decide whether I'd got the interest to proceed to his more notionally imposing works.

Dubliners is a collection that's far stronger than the sum of some fairly insignificant parts. It's almost a trial run for Ulysses' panoramic portrait of a Dublin day, using snapshots to build up a picture of a lively city, drawing these snaps from all ages and social strata. It's the former that lens a structure to the collection, the protagonists moving from a child experiencing the concept of death for the first time that to the most famous of the tales here, The Dead, a man realising a truth about his wife late in life. The concept of death in both the first and last tales lends a symmetry to the collection, evoking the circle of life. Each tale hangs on an epiphany for the central character, built up to by the events of the story. Some epiphanies are more important than others, particularly the ones toward the back end of the collection where experience allows the character to grasp the consequences of their revelation more, the stories therefore being richer. The likes of Eveline cover ground already trodden a thousand times, but then it's largely the case that the lack of life experience means younger characters are less dramatically interesting, particularly when they know little outside Dublin's city boundaries.

The Dead is clearly the standout story here, the theme of the dead always being with us haunting the dinner party and main character. Despite being by far the longest tale in the book, it doesn't feel like the longest to get through. Of course, that might just be a consequence of it's position as the finale. Personally, my favourite was A Little Cloud, since I could certainly relate to the thwarted literary ambitions of the protagonist, although in my case those are due to cowardice (and yet I'm blogging - go figure! Maybe the cojones are there after all) and, aside from The Dead, the poignancy of A Painful Case and late comic interlude of A Mother, seemed most successfully realised. For me it's at its least successful when dealing with the then hot political issue of nationality, important in establishing a sense of place and time, but of less interest or importance today.

I'm a fairly fast reader but Dubliners took me a fair while to get through, it's a combination of Joyce's deliberately simple language and the stories increasingly having the weight to demand that they be reflected upon. My edition was cursed with an overlong introduction (informative but could've done with losing a good ten or twenty pages from fifty) and overenthusiastic footnotes (the contextual notes about period Dublin were handy but when it goes so far as to tell what the Wild West was, it's going a long way overboard. but then I'd rather have too much context than no context, particularly when the city's as much a character as any of the people in the stories. Worthwhile, but despite the simplicity of language and story, don't expect an easy read.

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