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Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce?

August 5, 2011 30 comments

Dubliners by James Joyce. 1914.

I’m well aware that my post title will raise eyebrows or bring frowns on faces. I’ll explain later. I’m not going to introduce Dubliners here, I don’t see the point of poorly rephrasing what is already written on Wikipedia. So check here if you need explanations. This is my first James Joyce, a writer I’ve never read because I thought he was daunting. After several recommendations from readers I finally decided to try Dubliners. What can I say? I was stupid not to have read it before. It’s beautifully written and of course Joyce is a great author. So thanks for the recommendation.

Dubliners is a vivid picture of Dublin before the independence. He caught me with Araby, Eveline, A Painful Case and particularly with The Dead. I loved his style (“Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance.”), his quick thoughts about humanity (“Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money”), his descriptions of faces (“His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets.” Or “He wore a round hat of hard black felt. His face, shining with raindrops, had the appearance of damp yellow cheese save where two rosy spots indicated the cheekbones.”). I really enjoyed his wit and his gift at describing characters:

She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.

Sometimes I found French way of speaking with English words. “What age are you?” which is exactly what French pupils learning English would tend to say instead of How old are you? (Literal translation of the French Quel âge as-tu?) Same comment for “how goes it?” (Comment ça va?)

But he lost me sometimes.

He lost me in the language but that was predictable. So I asked for help and downloaded a French translation and went back and forth the original and the French. There were many expressions (“that emphatically takes the biscuit” or “He’s gone to the dogs.”) or sometimes acronyms (a.p. for appointment, g.p. for I don’t know what except that I don’t think they were drinking a doctor, so I assume, being in Dublin, that it was beer). The problem was that he lost the kindle’s dictionary too with words such as barmbracks or peloothered, which was less predictable. Hence the French translation. Then I got angry at the translator for unnecessary changes. Why does Maria from Clay became Ursule in French? And why a man of 66 became a man of 70? But all in all, it helped me with the original.

He lost me in Two Gallants, I never quite understood what the two guys wanted from the girl, even after reading it in French. Prostitution? Sorry for being slow…

He lost me in a sea of boredom in Grace. – Yes, holiday by the coast, can’t help sea metaphores – All that stuff about religion. Perhaps he wanted to show how boring religion was to him.

He totally lost me in Ivy Day in the Committee Room as it is rife with political issues. I knew about Parnell but my mind went blank when I read about all the details about politics, King Edward’s visit to Ireland and so on.

He lost me in the internal cracks and divisions about nationalism and independence, like here:

O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile. “Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.

I assumed the Daily Express was a pro-London paper and I guessed that West Briton is an insult. That’s the point: I guessed and I can’t tell if I guessed right.

He lost me in the streets and the public transports of Dublin, a city I’ve never visited although I’d love to. I felt I was missing something there, Joyce obviously loves his city and his people. I’m sure it’s pretty evocative for a native but I felt left aside from private jokes. And that’s the persisting feeling about it. Although I was blown away by The Dead, I felt I was intruding in a book written for Irish people about their lives, their customs, their history and their identity. I felt Joyce wanted to show them who they are, from childhood to old age and that they should stand for themselves.

Hence my post title.

But I’ll let Joyce have the last word with his observation of changes in the Irish society:

A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.

For another review, read Sarah’s here.

Max’s review is available here

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