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Look at Books with Cahir O'Doherty

A look at books: James Joyce’s “Dubliners”

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Look at Books with Cahir O'Doherty

Dubliners – Centennial Edition

By James Joyce

James Joyce was just 25 when he completed "Dubliners," perhaps the greatest short story collection ever written. It was an act of extraordinary creative daring, giving Dublin and the Irish to the English speaking world in a way that had never been seen before.

Alongside the surprise of its appearance was the shock of its modernity. The characters in Joyce’s unforgettable stories laughed, loved and swore just like actual citizens, and the shock of that fact took decades to accommodate.

It would take a decade before Joyce could even find a publisher willing to print it, after all. What should have been loudly heralded was instead loudly condemned. In Ireland we usually celebrate our latest geniuses after we have run out of other things to call them. That hasn’t changed.

In Ireland we idolize Joyce now, but we should remember that in his lifetime he was jeered by most of his Irish contemporaries as a pornographer and a deviant. His books were continuously banned. In search of his own creative autonomy we forced him out of the country.

What a far-reaching generational mistake that was. Re-reading the centennial edition "Dubliners" is a reminder that he had analyzed the politics and psychosis of 20-century Ireland and had much to warn us of that we failed to heed. 

One of the things that Joyce writes about is poverty, every type of poverty – financial, emotional and spiritual. Poverty, he continually reminds us, is a form of violence in itself.

As in O’Casey, Ireland’s generational poverty and the harm that violent colonialism has done to its citizens is a recurring theme. Like O’Casey, Joyce also offers a clear-sighted assessment of the social and religious forces that will later blight the lives of emerging Republic, in a startlingly prescient act of fortune telling.

He portrays a conservative clericalism that offers more judgment than compassion – intolerant patriarchs that condemn or abuse their own children; men and women who will sell out their neighbors and friends for a few pieces of silver.  All the recognizable horrors of the first five decades of the Irish free state are already present in this collection.

But so too are stories as beguiling and beautiful as "Araby," "Grace" and "The Dead." Joyce had scalding criticisms to offer, but "Dubliners" is also the greatest love letter ever written to Ireland and its capital city. 

"Araby" rivals Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" in its craft and beauty. "The Dead" captures and conveys what Joyce at one point calls distant music, an illuminating reference to the thwarted narrative of a colonized people, and to great passion recalled in a moment of calm. In Joyce and in Ireland the dead are almost as vivid as the living.

The word Joyce uses and fears is paralysis, which is where the nation finds itself as the century turns, but there is growing unease too just beneath the surface, all clamoring for a hearing in most comprehensive and beautiful portrait of the Irish ever written.

Penguin, $17. 

Dubliners 100

Edited by Thomas Morris

The idea was simple, writes editor Thomas Morris. Fifteen contemporary Irish authors were asked to “cover” the 15 original stories of "Dubliners" to mark the centenary of the book.

But he was asking Irish contemporary authors, to whom nothing is ever simple. Would it be a simple rewrite, or could they take the original story in any new direction they liked? Could they even switch it so that it read from another character’s perspective?

The answer was one of Joyce’s favorite words: yes. What Belinda McKeon does with Joyce’s short story "Counterparts" represents a high water moment in the collection. 

Switching the gender of the original protagonist from male to female, McKeon maintains his original capacity for callousness and self-deception.

In her acidly funny portrait of a five alarm Dubliner headed toward her Waterloo, McKeon updates all the tech too, from the era of speaking tubes in offices to our own age of glowing Macbooks and Twitter.

But surprisingly little has changed in the emotional or spiritual life of the nation and the capital city from Joyce’s era to our own, which each of these stand-alone stories make clear in passing. 

Most of these “update” gambits usually fail, but Joyce’s psychological modernity makes his stories leap to life with the same urgency he originally wrote them. Buy this book for a portrait of the Irish in 2014.

Tramp Press, $21.

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