My ‘Around the world in 80 books’ is taking its leisurely course. This stop is in the city of Dublin, Ireland. A place I’ve long wanted to visit, and the setting for one of my course texts, James Joyce’s Dubliners.
The fifteen short stories close in on the ordinary lives of Irish people in varying stages of their lives in an early twentieth-century city that is being both pulled back by its past and forward by the future. The people are all stuck in some way, held back by their individual and collective histories, their environments and their own personal limitations.
This is my first encounter with Joyce, and having heard that much of his other works are not easy reads, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these short stories. Even though there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout the collection, there is also this sense that things could change at any moment.
Favourite stories include – Eveline, Araby and A Little Cloud. The latter about a man ‘Little Chandler’ who dreams of becoming a poet:
‘The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures — on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens. He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.
He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.’
The familiar stereotype of the Irish, who love to drink and to laugh, is here too, but this is portrayed as an escape valve from the claustrophobia of their everyday lives. Chandler goes to a public house to meet an old friend who has long since moved away from Dublin. As he walks to meet his old friend Chandler is filled with the hope and possibility of escape:
‘Every step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own inartistic life. A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind. He was not so old – thirty-two. His temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity. There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy.’
Sadly, the stories do not end on a positive note. Joyce himself found his creative freedom, not in his beloved university city of Dublin, but instead once he had moved away from Ireland. Yet it seems Dublin held a special place in his heart as all his work is set in and around this city. He says:
‘For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal’.
For me, this goes not only for the city itself, but for the people in it, whose lives I became particularly attached to the more I read Joyce’s beautiful prose.