An Irish Jag

Don't know why, but I've been delving into Irish literature of late. I blogged about Big House novels the other day. After finishing the The Big House of Inver, I looked around for something else. The only thing on the shelf was Dubliners, so I started rereading it yesterday (devouring it really). Now only the The Dead is left.

Some general observations: the fourteen stories and novella have the impact of a novel. Tied together by space and time, their sequence evokes the development of a single consciousness. The initial stories—The Sisters, An Encounter, Araby—have child first-person narrators. This intimacy is lost as the "protagonists" progress into adulthood and experience frustrated love, disappointment and a root alienation from a more cosmopolitan European culture.

The book, of course, is a very Joycean indictment of his native land but its tone is never angry or especially accusatory. Each of the characters is inexorably and tragically deadened by Irish provincialism, narrow-mindedness or the constipated antiquity of the Irish Catholic Church. Indeed, the book both begins and ends with frozenness, the old priest’s onset of paralysis in The Sisters foreshadowing the snow that will white out the city at the close of The Dead.

Dubliners is the most structurally conventional of Joyce’s major works, reminding one even of Chekhov at times. (Did Joyce read Chekhov? He must have.) This conventionalism, however, doesn’t mask that Joyce was moving in a new direction. The overarching development and consciousness that pervades the work is atomized into particulars, which mutes any 19th Century plot neatness. Characters are depicted at quietly dramatic moments or, to use Joyce’s own term, epiphanies. They are usually presented with the possibility of escape or a more healthy development only to shrink back or have their freedom curtailed by the larger forces of psychological or societal oppression.

Eveline, the daughter of an abusive father, cannot bring herself to leave with her sailor lover for South America. In After the Race, a young, rich, Cambridge-educated Irishman has a moment of cosmopolitan pleasure among his international friends, yet it’s clear that his experience of freedom is for one night only. In the morning his debts and responsibilities will return. The latter part of the book deals with public life: politics, religion, culture. Ivy Day in the Committee Room sends up the pettiness and fecklessness of Irish politics after the fall of Parnell. Grace depicts a businessman’s Catholic religious retreat and hints at the mercantile portrayals in Ulysses. And lastly, there is the great novella The Dead.

One is tempted to think that Joyce’s depiction of Gabriel Conroy is kind of self-portrait of who he would have been had he not left Ireland. And yet the story is more than that. A sensitive, educated, and cultured man discovers that his wife’s heart belongs to a romantic West Ireland boy who died years earlier. The bald cognates are that Conroy, like Ireland, is haunted by his past, by a romantic West country mythology that robs the richness of the present moment. Thus the dead are never truly dead; they walk among the living. Or that the living are just as dead. A brilliant story.

Walking the streets of Dublin today you can still see what a canvas Joyce had to work with. Even with all of the changes, the fast food joints and tourists traps, you can see the buildings he passed, the parks, the monuments. There are the obligatory shiny shopping districts that seem depressingly similar the world over. Still, there’s enough residual 18th and 19th Century architecture left to sense what it must have been like when Joyce lived there. The streets bustle with people. One wonders what a Marxist like James Connolly would make of O’Connell Street today as it teems with multinational brand names and souvenir shops. There’s a store for mobile phones across from the GPO today, the spot where the Irish Republic was first proclaimed.

Heading south from city center on the crowded inter-urban railway, you actually trace in reverse the path Stephen Dedalus took in Ulysses. When I was in Dublin a few years ago, I took this route. Just before breakfast, I walked a few blocks north from the B and B where I was staying to 7 Eccles Street, the address of Joyce’s fictional hero in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. A hospital now stands there, but the spot is marked with a small plaque. Later I rode past the tower and the beaches of Sandymount.

It’s odd going to places you’ve read about in novels. I am sometimes struck by how literally a writer’s mind works. Kafka’s castle does loom over Prague­ and the beach at Sandymount is covered with rummaging seabirds when the tide is out. The long, flat, wrack-strewn shoreline stretches for a 1/4 mile or more to the ocean, and the sands glisten in the morning light. It's so easy to envision Stephen Dedalus glimpsing a wavering, crane-like girl in the distance.

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