GUEST POST – Surly Joe
SYNOPSIS (From Goodreads) – This work of art reflects life in Ireland at the turn of the last century, and by rejecting euphemism, reveals to the Irish their unromantic reality. Each of the 15 stories offers glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners, and collectively they paint a portrait of a nation.
REVIEW – In Grade Ten English class, we were assigned to read a short story entitled “Araby” by an Irish author named James Joyce. It was one of fifteen stories in his collection called Dubliners. We were told he was one of the twentieth century’s greatest authors. None of us had ever heard of him. We read “Araby”, about a young boy’s first experience with infatuation, how his feelings made concentration impossible, and how every morning and throughout the day, he could not get the image of the girl out of his mind, “even in places the most hostile to romance”. When we had finished reading, our sentiment was almost unanimous. The story was slow. Nothing really happened. James Joyce was a master? Really? We didn’t get it.
Of course we didn’t get it. We were in Grade Ten. We were struggling with our own brand new adolescent feelings for the first time. We were only on the cusp of real emotional experience. We couldn’t relate to “Araby”. And if we had read the rest of Dubliners, we wouldn’t have related to it either.
This is the beauty of re-reading a book three decades later with an open-mind and a perspective that has been beaten up a bit by life. The subtleties and masterful language of Dubliners, the slow but perfect pace of the stories, and the themes of love, death, politics, religion and regret, are all only poignant to the reader who has experienced them.
Tracing the course of life in early twentieth-century Dublin, Joyce’s collection begins with “The Sisters” and how a young boy is confronted with death for the first time, wondering why, surrounded by grieving adults, neither he “nor the day seemed in a mourning mood”. He saw the body in the coffin and listened while his elders spoke of the “beautiful death”, but the moment had little impact.
“One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” ― James Joyce,
Following “The Sisters” is “An Encounter”, where a group of boys look for “real adventures” after reading about the Wild West and American detective stories. Wandering through town, they meet an old man who talked to them about books, poetry, and “sweethearts”. But the adventure turns creepy when the conversation shifts to how “all girls were not so good as they seem to be” and how some boys deserved to be whipped.
With each passing story, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to death, Dubliners gets more bitter. Layers of innocence are stripped away, replaced by regret, anger and melancholy. This is best exemplified in “A Painful Case”, with a very solitary man living a regimented solitary life. “He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed…his life rolled out evenly – an adventureless tale.” But his routine is briefly interrupted when he meets a woman and starts to trust and talk. When she hints at intimacy, however, he retreats and buries himself in his old ways. Years later, he has regrets, recognizing that “he was an outcast from life’s feast.”
I have no idea where my Grade Ten English teacher is now, who forced me and my classmates to struggle through “Araby” long ago. I’d like to say thanks retroactively. I re-read Dubliners. I get it now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – James Joyce (1882 – 1941) is one of Ireland’s most influential and celebrated writers. His most famous work is Ulysses (1922) which follows the movements of Leopold Bloom through a single day on June 16th, 1904. Ulysses is based on Homer’s The Odyssey.
Some of Joyce’s other major works include the short story collection Dubliners (1914), and novels A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). Joyce was born in Dublin on 2nd February 1882 and attended school in Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College (just up the road from the Centre) before going on to University College, then located on St Stephen’s Green, where he studied modern languages.
In 1940, when Joyce fled to the south of France ahead of the Nazi invasion, Paul Léon returned to the Joyces’ apartment in Paris to salvage their belongings and put them into safekeeping for the duration of the war. It’s thanks to Léon’s efforts that many of Joyce’s personal possessions and manuscripts still survive today. James Joyce died at the age of fifty-nine, on 13 January 1941 in Schwesterhaus vom Roten Kreuz in Zurich where he and his family had been given asylum. He is buried in Fluntern cemetery, Zurich.
In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom. His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side. After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, circumstance led to a career back in Toronto. He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.