'Dubliners': our city, our book
Readings, walks, performances, concerts, exhibitions: for the next month Dublin will be immersed in ‘Dubliners’, as James Joyce’s classic collection of short stories is celebrated by One City, One Book. As part of the event, a new edition is being published by the O’Brien Press, with this introduction by JOHN BOYNE
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Dubliners came when I was 15 years old. My older sister was leaving home to take up a place at an English university, and I wanted to give her a present before she went. I wandered into a bookshop close to my school in Terenure during lunch break – not the type of school or area depicted in any of Joyce’s stories – and the book caught my eye.
I have it on my desk as I write this, that same edition, slightly torn, with yellowed edges, the date “1986” inscribed on the title page. The drawing on the front shows a young woman looking up nervously as an enormous feather flies towards her; I have no idea what this is supposed to signify or why the feather is bigger than her head. In the background appears to be the General Post Office, although the Liffey is flowing directly in front of it, which doesn’t make a lot of sense either. But, at 15, questions like that would never have entered my mind, and I chose the book simply because I thought it would remind my sister of home.
It makes me wonder: how many emigrants over the years have put a paperback copy of Dubliners in their bags before heading to the airport, the docks or the ferry terminals, as they made their way to England, the US or Australia, as a reminder of the city of their birth, a city from which they have found themselves exiled through economic necessity? How many of them are doing it again now?
Before giving my sister the book, however, I glanced through it, wondering whether I should have a go at it myself even though I was half-convinced that it would bore the pants off me. We had a copy of Ulysses in our school library, and I had spent an afternoon a few months before navigating the tense waters between Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus and the student Haines as they made their way along the shore in front of Sandycove’s Martello tower, and, although I had stuck with the opening section, the prospect of another 700 pages had filled me with dread. (Again, I was 15; I’d only recently traded in Adrian Mole for Holden Caulfield, so the meanderings of stately, plump Anyone around my own city were nowhere near as interesting as the wanderings of the catcher in the rye around the streets of Manhattan, picking up girls and saying dirty words.)
But Dubliners, I had to admit, looked a lot easier. It was shorter, for one thing; less intimidating. I picked a story at random, Two Gallants, a tale of a couple of bowsies, Corley and Lenehan, who have a terrible attitude to women, seducing them, stringing them along and then finally swindling one out of a gold coin. I thought they seemed like great fellows altogether. Except I wasn’t quite sure what had happened at the end, and so I read it again, this time feeling a little less comfortable with their obvious misogyny and cruel natures.
Still, the story made an impression on me, and I wondered whether there might be something in this Joyce fellow after all. I turned back to the beginning, to The Sisters, and began to read.
I didn’t encounter Dubliners again until university. I was studying English at Trinity College, and, unlike my Terenure days, the streets around College Green, running north across the river on to Parnell Square, past the Garden of Remembrance and on to Dorset Street, brought the world of Joyce alive to me, as these were streets that I was walking along every day, streets that were familiar to me and to which I felt an intimate and personal connection. My interest in literature was fully developing by now, and I thought it was quite something to be a Dubliner, with a father from the city centre – from Boyne Street, no less – and a literary heritage that was the match of any city in the world.
Reading Dubliners then made me realise something that I had never quite understood before about the short story: that a collection did not have to be a random assortment of disparate fictions gathered together and bound between covers to make a book, but that a writer could and should make connections between the stories, links between the characters, that each would have their place in the greater work and be set there for a reason. I thought of it like a concept album. But then I was at university at the time, so this was the frame of reference I was working in.
Returning to it now as an adult, it strikes me how economical Joyce is with language. We still think of Ulysses as a long work filled with classical allusion and historical reference points, but most of the stories in Dubliners are only a few thousand words at most, and remain firmly inside their own milieu, yet they linger in the mind and invite rereading time and again to understand the minds and decipher the intentions of their protagonists.
The complexity of thought in The Boarding House, for example, would merit an academic study longer than the story itself. How long has Mrs Mooney known of the relationship between her tenant and her daughter? What has happened to Doran to make him think so contemptuously of his paramour’s station in life? What on earth is Polly actually up to with her mood swings?
Joyce manages to presage themes that would, almost a century later, be common refrains in Irish literature. Reading An Encounter, it’s hard to imagine a more subtle exploration of potential child abuse than the one that appears in the meeting between the old man and the two boys.
“I say! Look what he’s doing!” exclaims the boy Mahony when the old man stands up and steps away from them for a few moments. And what is he doing? Everything is inferred, everything is suggested, no explanations are needed.
The collection separates itself into three parts, exploring the lives of children, the middle-aged and the elderly. It begins with a child contemplating the death of a priest who has had a formative influence on him, a death that he cannot fully comprehend when the whole of life seems open before him now, an endless adventure. There is first love in Araby, a moving story of a boy’s desperate desire to purchase the right gift from a bazaar for the girl he likes and his pained inability to do so. There is lost love, too, only a story later, in Eveline. By the centre of the collection we encounter the frustrations of middle age: Farrington’s gradual loss of temper in Counterparts, his loss of masculinity in the arm-wrestling contest; Mrs Sinico’s loneliness in A Painful Case; Mrs Kearney’s attempt to relive her youth vicariously through her daughter in A Mother. And then, finally, the collection draws to a close with the masterpiece The Dead.
For the young reader coming to Joyce for the first time, Dubliners is certainly the place to start. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are books that you have to build yourself up for, but Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are different kettles of fish altogether, as Joyce himself might have put it. There’s a very pure engagement with storytelling in these 15 stories; the narratives are to the fore even if it takes the reader a little time to mine down towards the meaning below the surface. The language makes one smile and feel a little unsettled at the same time, such as when the old man in An Encounter remarks that what a boy wants is “a nice warm whipping”. And there are still words that, even now, I need to look up in a dictionary, as I have no idea what they mean – simoniac, sedulously, bostoons, among others – although perhaps this says more about me than it does about the author.
The One City, One Book concept, employed in various cities around the world, is a wonderful way to get an entire community engaged in reading, talking about books and sharing their opinions. It’s the biggest book club you can join and there’s no limit on the number of places. In past years, Dubliners have engaged with classic fiction by Flann O’Brien, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, whose books have illuminated the city through humour, fantasy, horror and mythology. We’ve opened ourselves to new novels by Sebastian Barry and Joseph O’Connor, who have examined the plight of Dublin soldiers in the first World War and of an actress recalling her experience during the cultural revolution instigated by Synge, Lady Gregory and Yeats.
But it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate book for One City, One Book 2012 than Dubliners. It’s interested in all of us, rich and poor, old and young, men and women. It’s filled with humour and love, pain and loss – and which of our lives do not contain elements of each of these? Above all, it rings with a love of these streets, of the voices of the people who inhabit them, their wit, their style, their optimism even as the world collapses around them.
Dubliners might have been inspired by the city that gave the collection its name, but the city itself, this one city with this one book, continues to be defined by the stories we write about it.
Dubliners is published by the O’Brien Press, €7.99. Dublin: One City, One Book, which encourages everyone to read the same book each April, begins tomorrow; this year’s programme is at dublinonecityonebook.ie