By David Nilsen
Until this month, I had never read anything by James Joyce. No Finnegan’s Wake, no Ulysses, no A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Deciding to rectify this omission, I picked up a tattered copy of Dubliners that’s been on my shelf for years, and dug in on a cold, rainy night earlier this month, a pint of Irish stout at my side.
Dubliners was Joyce’s first published book of prose, and from what I can tell shows none of the experimentation displayed in his later works. These are clever, cleanly executed stories in straightforward prose. Joyce has a keen eye for human nature and personal tics, and the best part of these stories for me was his character sketches. Indeed, his stories sometimes feel like long-winded excuses for sublime biographical paragraphs like this one from “A Painful Case”:
“Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A mediæval doctor would have called him saturnine. His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets. On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny mustache did not quite cover his unamiable mouth. His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.”
As displayed in Dubliners (again, it’s the only Joyce I have to draw from), Joyce was a master of the succinctly perfect one-paragraph character description. There are two or three such paragraphs in every story, and they lay a character’s personality before us with flawless efficiency and wit. They are the jewels of these stories. Related to these biographical paragraphs are sentences and brief asides in which Joyce similarly reveals a character trait with an economy of words, as when describing the overbearing mother of a moderately talented pianist in “A Mother”:
“She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.”
One thing I struggle with when reading classic fiction is the feeling something in the subtlety of the ornamental and social descriptions is lost in translation all these years later. I have the feeling more is implied by the descriptions of a character’s clothing or vernacular, or the way manners are observed or not observed, than I am able to decipher. Still, even a century later and an ocean away, Joyce’s deft hand provides ample rewards for the modern reader.
My favorite story of this collection is its longest and probably its most famous. The final story in Dubliners is titled “The Dead,” and it takes place at a dinner party and dance held annually by three well-to-do sisters. The guests are economically comfortable but not wealthy, and the evening tracks their behaviors and conversations, their affections and prejudices as they dance, eat, sing, toast, and talk. The story reminded me of the extended opening scene of Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander. The large cast of characters and the mannered occasion provide a social playground for Joyce’s best gifts as a writer. The main characters are a married couple in their thirties, comfortable, happy enough, not quite in love anymore if they ever were. The husband gives a moving toast at the dinner, and afterward, as he and his wife travel to their hotel by carriage through the snowy streets, he is moved to desire for her. When they arrive at their hotel, however, she is distant, and after some prodding, she tells him about a boy she was once in love with as a teenager. She was reminded of him when someone at the party sang a song the boy used to sing. He died in his youth, and she has never spoken of him. The story concludes with this moving imagery:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Dubliners was a pleasing introduction for me to one of the forefathers of modern fiction. Joyce’s gift for character description is something I will return to many times again as I hone my own writing.