My Shakespeare professor in college said there was nothing new under the sun to say about Shakespeare, except our own personal story of reading him. I’m not enough of a literary critic to know if he was right, but that’s going to be my approach to reviewing James Joyce. Because if I was afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was even more afraid of James Joyce. I mean, who am I, right?
The funny thing is, in some ways James Joyce feels like a member of my family. Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Noam Chompsky — when I was growing up, those were household names. People were apt to talk about them in passing in the same way they might talk about Aunt Lillian or Grandpa Bloem. I knew my mother loved James Joyce, and I can still see the cover of her paperback copy of Portrait of an Artist sitting on the shelf above the big oak desk in her study. Still, it didn’t really occur to me that I should — or even could — read him. Too crazy hard, and who has time? That’s what I thought.
Last spring, though, I was hanging out with a friend who loves Joyce — I mean really, really loves Joyce. At the same time I had just started reading short stories with a voracious appetite, and so I thought, Ok, I’m going to do it. I’ll start with Dubliners. Most every spring my family and a bunch of our friends (this year there were seventeen of us) vacation on Sapelo Island, the northernmost of the Georgia Sea Isles. I decided I would read Dubliners there. On the beach. Just a little light beach reading.
My friend Gordon (for whom I write these reviews, and whom I adore, for starters because he introduced me to George Eliot twenty-six years ago when he was a professor and I was a student at Earlham College) — Gordon says that reading is not at all a solitary activity, even when we read alone; that we’re always reading with people, even if they don’t know it. I know just what he means. And on the beach there in Georgia, I was reading Dubliners not only with my Joyce-fanatic friend (even though he wasn’t actually there), but also with my dead mother. The two of them never met, but the three of us — in my imagination, at least — had a grand time reading Joyce together on the beach.
And as it turns out — oh, my! I suppose it’s such a cliché for an aspiring short story writer to say she loves Dubliners, but there you have it. These stories are the opposite of what I expected, in that they are so accessible. The language is unadorned, the stories themselves plain and simple. (Deceptively simple. I thought, as I read — I can do that! In the way that dancers and athletes move their bodies so effortlessly that you feel certain your body could also move with the same grace — until it doesn’t, of course, proving itself instead clunky and bound by gravity. That’s a bit what it feels like to write after reading Dubliners.)
As a city-dweller myself, I thought Joyce captured so perfectly in this collection all the ways that a city, itself, can be stuck, and all the particularity and smallness — in both the best and the worst sense of the word — of the lives of its inhabitants. A contemporary Joyce would have no lack of material if he wanted to write a similar collection called Philadelphians. Among my favorites of the stories in Dubliners were Araby (because I know that boy, he’s like every incredibly big-brained boy I know, right?); A Little Cloud (hey, I know that man too…); A Painful Case (so so sad); Ivy Day in the Committee Room (I’m telling you, someone could make a name for himself with a collection called Philadelphians).
And, of course, The Dead. I loved this story, but it also called to mind Adrienne Rich’s poem, one of the Twenty-One Love Poems (and I’m recalling, probably incompletely, from memory here because I can’t find my copy): “women at least should know the difference between love and death.” I have to admit, this tragic, idealized notion of passion and love — where the only real choices are anguish or death, and where the quotidian messiness of actually loving someone is an intrusion, an incumbrance — can I say it? It seems sort of boyish. Part of me felt breathless at the snow imagery sprinkled throughout — so lovely, so complex, surely more than just a shroud, something more potentially hopeful: “A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his goloshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds.” (I mean really, does it get any better than that?) But another part of me just wanted to crawl into the story and shake the snow off Gabriel’s shoulders and shout “Dude! She’s right there! Michael Furey was a flash in the pan, and moreover HE’S DEAD. But you’re not. She’s not. Don’t be an idiot.”
Dubliners is certainly rife with paralysis, indecision, regret. Yet like the snow in The Dead, I didn’t find it entirely bleak. It seems to me that the inside joke of all art is that the very making of it — no matter how bleak the subject — is an affirmation, decisive, creative. This haunting collection certainly left me feeling that way.
Tomorrow: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (and more on thinking about Joyce with my dead mother).