My rereading of Dubliners was as enjoyable as always. That book reminds me of a great band’s first album. Not the sort of band whose first album is their only good one, but the sort of band that, even though they go on to produce other great (even great-er) work, you always retain a soft spot for that first album. To continue the analogy a bit – it’s like one of those first album’s that’s produced on the cheap (like Nirvana’s Bleach), and so doesn’t, upon first inspection, seem to be anything all that special.
I guess that’s where the analogy breaks down – even from the first, for me, this book was something special. I remember quite clearly when and where I first read Dubliners – in the backyard of my Oxford apartment house, in the early summer of 1998. “Two Gallants” actually made the strongest impression, followed closely by “Araby” and perhaps “Counterparts.” These are my favorite short stories of all time. The biggest challenger to this title would be the collected Tolstoy stories recently translated Pevear and Volokhonsky. But those are more like novellas, streching to 60-80 pages; most stories in Dubliners are less than 15.
This time, reading the book I read them in the order in which Joyce composed them, as opposed to the order they appear in the book. Here is the order in which he composed them:
- “The Sisters”
- “After the Race” (each of these first three was published separateely in Irish Homestead while Joyce lived in Dublin in 1904, soon after his mother died and he met Nora Barnacle, his future wife)
- “The Boarding House”
- “A Painful Case”
- “Ivy Day in the committee Room”
- “An Encounter”
- “A Mother”
- “Grace” (when Joyce first sought to have this book published by a first represented by Grant Richards, he included #1-#12, most of which were written over a stretch of 1904)
- “Two Gallants” (Joyce added this story after submitting the manuscript to Richards, and it caused huge problems – mostly for its use of the word “bloody”)
- “A Little Cloud”
- “The Dead” (he wrote this later – in 1907)
Two big reactions came out of this re-reading. First – in terms of my project, about Joyce, orality, the Homeric Question, Ulysses, etc., Joyce’s work in Dubliners has little to offer. Joyce’s interest in oral tradition certainly comes through: traditional songs are repeatedly included (most notably in “Clay” and “Araby”), and there is a profound exploration of the nature of ordinary speech (especially in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “The Sisters,” and “Grace”). But the style of the stories is, to use Joyce’s phrase, one of “scrupulous meanness,” not modernist Homeric epic. These are basically just extremely well-written, spare and realistic narratives.
There is something deceiving in this “meanness” though – at first, the narration sounds like ordinary third-person-limited, but upon closer inspection, you can see the 3rd-person part of that breaking down a bit into something that would later become Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” technique (the style featured most prominently in the opening chapters of Ulysses).
But for the most part, Dubliners is not part of the whole rejection-of-literature project, so much as it is literature written with a definite focus on the realistic depiction of the life of the lower-middle class in the Dublin of the turn of the century. Based on Ellmann’s bigraphy, these stories also seem to have been written when Joyce took the most direct interest in politics – both the question of Irish independence and revolutionary socialism seem to have been much on his mind during this period.
Second big reaction – Dubliners could very easily never have been published. Grant Richards basically gave Joyce the runaround for the better part of 3 years, from 1904 through most of 1906, until Joyce finally gave up on trying to placate Richards’ editorial desires. Mostly these stemmed from concerns over obscenity and libel lawsuits. The correspondence between Joyce and Richards (it’s dozens of letters) is fascinating reading. Richards repeatedly professes great admiration for the stories, but never lets Joyce convince him that they wouldn’t deeply offend his potential readership. The word “bloody” is a particular sticking point, but there were other worries about obliquely referenced sexual behavior and desire, as well as some worry about the political agenda seemingly lurking behind the stories. I’m only though the 1907 part of the biography and letters, and Dubliners was still not published until 7 years after that. It’s a miracle Joyce didn’t decide to burn it (as he did the early chapters of Stephen Hero, which he was also writing during this period).
Lastly – Joyce was really and truly a “starving artist” in his 20’s. This was largely his own doing – he was a spendthrift and likely an alcoholic for much of the years during which Dubliners was written. He moved from Dublin to Zurich and then Trieste and then Pola in 1902, then back to Dublin, then back to Pola, then back to Dublin in 1904 when his mother died. Then he moved back to Trieste, then Rome, then back to Trieste, all by the start of 1907. Within each city there were several changes of address as he ran out of money, got kicked out of residences who didn’t want children (Joyce’s first son Giorgio was born in 1905) or whose lines of credit Joyce abused. He was nearly always borrowing money from an ever-shifting nexus of people. He wrote many letters to his brother Stanislaus begging him for very small amounts of money, often saying that he didn’t see how he could live through the next few days without it. He and his family seem to have eaten only every few days (if his accounts are to be believed).
There were surprisingly few autobiographical tie-ins with the stories in Dubliners – though one exception is “Eveline,” the story of a young woman who plans to, but then at the last minute decides against leaving Ireland for the continent with her boyfriend. Joyce wrote this story within days of he and Nora leaving on a boat from Dublin’s North Wall. Joyce deeply feared that Nora would not go, and this story, in some ways, gives voice to that fear.