Fifteen years ago, I binged for a couple of months on the Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941) and read his first novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the short story collection Dubliners. The reading experience was, to put it mildly, intense.
Joyce’s singular achievement was to render the total life experience of Dublin, Ireland, in all its aspects and without any of his own personality intruding, as all great literature is achieved. He was perhaps most well known for his novel Ulysses, which devotes its several hundred pages to one day in the life of Stephen Dedulus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom. It is almost impossible to read because of its stream of consciousness technique with several events, impressions, and conversations occurring all at once, yet it has sold millions of copies.
I would recommend the Dubliners for beginners, especially its longest story, The Dead, which depicts an annual Christmas dinner party hosted by two elderly sisters. Beneath the festive hospitality is a terrifying sense of life going nowhere; Joyce’s genius was in the arrangement of particular details of food, chit chat, and good fellowship against the mood of desolation. One scene describes the impressions of the nephew of the two sisters, Gabriel, as he notices them entering the drawing room:
“His aunts were two small, plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect, her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister’s, was all puckers and creases, like a shriveled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour.”
The two women are leading lives of blighted banality, which this annual party does little to alleviate.
I close with some verses from Joyce’s lengthy poem, Chamber Music:
“Lean out of the window,
I heard you singing
A merry air.
“My book was closed;
I read no more,
Watching the fire dance
On the floor.
“I have left my book,
I have left my room,
For I heard you singing
Through the gloom.
“Singing and singing
A merry air,
Lean out of the window,
As a young man, James Joyce learned the Norwegian language just so he could read the collected works of Norway’s famed playwright Hendrik Ibsen in the original tongue.
He was a fanatical taskmaster on himself and would be happy if he came up with seven words that met his approval during a 15-hour workday.
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