Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dubliners (James Joyce) (8.9/10.0)

DublinersI have a confession to make ... I don’t really like short stories. I mean, I see their utility for teaching the elements of story structure and characterization, and I appreciate the odd twist that makes for a memorable story scene, but I never find them really fulfilling. And I generally forget them very quickly. They are, I would contend, the rice cakes of the literary scene ... universally respected as the most healthy of literary treats, but consistently failing to deliver any actual nutrition to their hungry readers. I find it hard to believe that I am alone in this. Come on, be honest. Have you really gone out of your way to read short stories since you were ten and forced to read The Lottery?

Now, when I state a dislike of short stories in the context of a review of James Joyce, I feel guilty ... and I mean seriously guilty. Even the mention of Joyce conjures for me images of the staunch Irish Catholicism that I endured as a child and have been running from ever since. It’s enough to make me want to confess.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned ... it has been more than three years since my last short story.”

Fortunately for me, Dubliners is a bit different. First published in 1914, Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories (okay, it’s really 14 short stories and one novella) that depict middle class life in Dublin just after the turn of the twentieth century. The stories revolve primarily around topics that are near and dear to the Irish heart: death (The Sisters, A Painful Case, and (of course) The Dead), poverty (After the Race, The Boarding House, and Clay), alcohol (Counterparts and Grace), and politics (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). Now, even as I write it, that depiction sounds downright drab, but Joyce’s lyrical skills are at their peak in these stories, and every single one manages to warm your heart just as if you yourself were standing next to a peat fire in some country pub out on the cliffs of the old sod ordering a round of pints for the lads.

Between the consistency of the Dublin scene that it paints and the beautiful effect of Joyce’s lyrical prose, Dubliners is a very enjoyable read. In fact, though it was written by the same Joyce that we love and hate for Ulysses and (ugh) Finnegans Wake, Dubliners is even completely understandable! It makes me wonder what Joyce might have produced if he hadn’t grown so enamored of experimenting with form and language. Not that what he wrote wasn’t good ... I mean, the best ... oh there I go feeling guilty again. That’s what happens when you criticize the master. Does anyone have a rosary?


  1. Joyce is such an enigma to me. I read and enjoyed "Portrait of an Artist.." and then I open and flip through "Ulysses" or the Wake and I just..WHY, JAMES? Where's the fine line between super-genius and bat-sh** crazy?

  2. YAY! Someone else who hated Finnegans Wake. I absolutely love your blog and have to credit Jane Doe for bringing me here. :)

  3. Jane, I'm in the middle of my second attempt at Ulysses (the first was many years ago). I do find the prose clever and entertaining, but I really can't see why this book is consistently rated the greatest English-language novel every written. Maybe we're all missing something?

    SocrMom78, thanks for coming by! I picked up Finnegans Wake around 1995 (I think) and I still can't really tell you what I read. Maybe I'll give it another read at some point, but Ulysses is not really making me want to run out and buy it either.

  4. I'm not a great lover of short stories either. Outside of the true masters (Joyce, Hemingway, Chekov, Chandler of old and Proulx, Munro, and Lahiri more recently) I can't get that worked up for them. "Debut story collection" is the most terrifying everyday phrase I encounter. Well that and "routine prostate exam."

  5. Thanks, Ape. It's nice to know that at least one literature professor shares my antipathy. I enjoyed Dubliners, and I do like some of Hemingway's shorts, and Chekov is of course a true master, but they're definitely the exception. I maintained a subscription to The Paris Review for years, but let it go when I realized that I was wasting valuable reading time on stories that were forgotten the very next day. And thanks for that last line--it really made me chuckle.

  6. I'm with you on normally skipping the short fiction, but I have friends who read nothing but. They say certain writers, Stephen King is one oft-mentioned, write much better short stories than long fiction for the simple reason that when writing short, they don't have the same opportunity for indulging their egos, and so their short fiction is tighter, and more manageable (for lack of a better phrase)...

    Not sure I buy that, but I still like novels better...

    And I've had Dubliners on my shelf since at least college, and haven't once been tempted to touch it. But now I am...A little...

  7. I don't like short stories either. They're too...short. They're all investment with no return. However, I do have to read something by Joyce eventually and I'm running out of years. You can't be a serious reader without reading Joyce right? Whenever he comes up in conversation I change the subject to Hemingway or Dickens or somebody, anybody to avoid admitting I've never read James Joyce. I certainly would never admit that he intimidates me. Maybe I should just buy one. I'm too cheap to spend money and not read the book. Oh crap. There's just no avoiding it is there?

  8. Found you on The Hop - great blog! I'll be visiting again!

    "The Dead" is a wonderful story - my favorite, not only in The Dubliners but in most of the short fiction I've read. The scene in which Gabriel watches his wife from the bottom of the stairs is, in my opinion, the most romantic scene between a husband and wife that has ever been written. I don't see how anyone could fail to be touched by it - but that's just me!

  9. Thanks, Greg. And I agree - Stephen King is better short than long. I still have a hard time believing that he wrote Shawshank. You should definitely give Dubliners a read. It's kind of like popcorn, while you don't really want it, before you know it, you're at the bottom of the bag.

    Ordinary Reader, I feel the same way--there's no avoiding Joyce if you want to consider yourself well-read in English (language) literature. Dubliners is definitley Joyce-lite compared to Ulysses and Finnegans. You should give it a go.

    2manybooks2littletime--what a great screen name! It's so true. I remember liking and respecting The Dead when I ready it two months ago, but I seriously do not remember what the story line was. Maybe I'm getting old? I do remember the overpowering desire to hug my wife and tell her how much I love her. Maybe that's the mark of a great writer--someone who reaches out of the page to affect you in your every day life.

  10. Im so tempted to read this now just so then I could say, 'oh Joyce? yeah Ive read him'