August 18th, 2006

Relax!  Grab a Book!

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  1. Ballard, J.G. — Crash
  2. Joyce, James — The Dubliners

I started reading The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as my 3nth book, but I chose it only because I knew I would finish Crash on the flight back to Boston and the pickings on my bookshelf were slim. I wasn't in the mood for Heinlein, though, and after some forty-odd pages I set it aside for something else. I decided that, since I was on my way to Ireland's capital for a few days, there was no better time to read Joyce's The Dubliners.

I've been curious about Joyce for over a decade. I had never made the effort to read him, though, because I was scared off by stories of his impenetrability, especially in Ulysses. (This is the same reason I have not yet attempted to read Eliot's The Wasteland.) However, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and The Dubliners (both of which I happened to own in a volume that includes Chamber Music) are supposed to be accessible by Joycian standards, so I've been meaning to get to them for the past couple of years. The time was ripe. Forgetting that I owned the aforementioned volume, I allowed my sister Cathy to buy me a paperback copy of The Dubliners. This turned out to be fortuitous. The paperback only cost $5 and could easily be tucked in my back pocket during my travels, whereas the hardcover collection would have been a bitch to carry around.

I get the sense that I would appreciate the stories collected within The Dubliners more if I were to sit down in a book club-like environment and discuss them with others. I feel I'm missing something: I don't have the necessary background, insight, whatever, to get the most out of these stories. I have to admit that most of the time I found myself finishing a story and thinking, "Um, okay, this story's alright, but shouldn't there be more?" I simply couldn't quite wrap my mind around them. This is, no doubt, partly the result of living in a different era, with different mores, expectations, and obligations. For example, in a couple of stories a character says something that another finds deeply insulting; only after I learned that offense was given and went back and re-read the offensive statement did I perceive a sense in which the statement might give offense, whereas it seemed obvious to all the parties involved. I guess, in today's culture, I've become inured to such things. Now, it was nice recognizing the various placenames mentioned in The Dubliners, reading references to parts of Trinity College, the train stop on Merrion Street, St. Stephen's Green, the Wellington Monument, Temple Bar, etc., and knowing precisely where in Dublin the characters were; however, I don't think that helped me understand the stories any better. In short, I think I lack the sensitivity or perceptiveness to appreciate Joyce fully on my own.

This doesn't mean I didn't enjoy any of these stories. I related strongly to Chandler in "A Little Cloud" and his feeling that there has got to be more to life than what he's seen and that the daily demands of earning a living are slowly suffocating the poetic spirit within him. And I was moved by the last third of "The Dead," where Gabriel and Gretta struggle with strong emotions during circumstances when these emotions seem eerily amplified, and Gabriel feel as close to Gretta as ever only to discover that they really couldn't be more distant. It's in these two stories that I began to feel there might be justification to Joyce's reputation.