• The short story collection to top them all.

    The short story collection to top them all.

    Author:  James Joyce

  • Published:  1914
  • Publisher:  Grant Richards Ltd
  • Pages:  182
  • First Line:  “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.”
  • Last Line:  “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
  • ML Edition:  #124  (seven different dust jackets); gold dust jacket
  • Film:  1987  (**** – dir. John Huston)
  • First Read:  early 1993

The Novel:  My first experience with James Joyce came the same way I suspect a lot of people have their first experience with Joyce – I read his short story “Araby” in 9th grade English.  “Araby” is one of the all-time great short stories, of course, and one often read at some point in high school.  Part of it is because of the beauty of the language (“When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners.  When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre.  The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.”).  Part of it is because it is nice and short.  Part of it is because it is told from the point of view of a child and it gives younger readers an easier chance of connecting to it.  But also part of it is that it is part of Joyce’s larger work, an easy introduction to one of the world’s greatest writers, but one that is so much easier to understand than any of his novels.  It connects to his work, of course, not just through its look back to a personal history, not just because of its core connection to Dublin, the city that Joyce wrote about while leaving it for so long, but also because of the epiphany, that key moment that illuminates so much of Joyce’s work: “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.  My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom.  I thought little of the future.  I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration.  But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”

Joyce is perhaps the most difficult to read of all the great writers (I speak specifically about English language writers, since those writing outside of English I’m reading in translation and I can’t speak for certainty as to their difficulty in their original languages), even more so than Faulkner.  I first read both The Sound and the Fury and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the same class (AP English as a Senior) and I had a very good grasp of the former and was completely baffled by the latter.  Later readings would open up Joyce for me, but his two great novels remain exceedingly difficult for most people and his final novel continues even to baffle me.

There are no such difficulties in Dubliners.  It is the writing of a much younger man (though it was published only two years before Portrait, the bulk of the stories were written a decade before, with Joyce struggling to get the work published).  Just like at the beauty of the language of the opening line of “Two Gallants”: “The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets.  The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd.  Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging, unceasing murmur.”  Now compare it to the opening line of Portrait: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”

There are moments that link this to the larger world that Joyce would continue to write about.  There are some characters who will return in essentially cameo roles in Ulysses.  He will approach formal education in much the same way that his character in Portrait will: “She asked him why did he not write out his thoughts.  For what, he asked her, with careful scorn.  To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds?  To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?”  He will look at the people of Ireland and their potential future.  In “The Boarding House” we get this line: “On the last flight of stairs he passed Jack Mooney who was coming up from the pantry nursing two bottles of Bass.”  I had an English prof who pointed out that the man was going up while carrying English beer.  Given the way Joyce portrays the Irish, if he had been holding Guinness, he most assuredly would have been heading down.

These stories connect in a way that lots of short story collection don’t.  Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway, all among the greatest of short story writers, would all publish vital collections in the first half of the 20th Century but, for the most part, there is not an over-arching theme running through the collections.  They are simply great collections of stories.  These stories form a coherent whole that is more than just the sum of its parts.  For the same reason that a collection of Bruce Springsteen greatest hits would be a phenomenal album, as a work of art it not surpass Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A. because those have themes that make the whole a greater collection than the sum of their parts.  I have written before that Dubliners is the greatest short story collection ever written (I specifically mentioned it when I called Interpreter of Maladies “the best short story collection since Dubliners”).  Part of it is the language, such as these wonderful lines from “A Painful Case”: “His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets.  On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny moustache did not quite cover an unamiable mouth.  His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed.  He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.  He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a person and a predicate in the past tense.  He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.”  But it’s also because it works so well as a coherent whole.  I don’t consider this a novel like Winesburg, Ohio or The Things They Carried.  It’s a collection of short stories that work together and they should be read and treasured by everyone.

An "unfilmable" story becomes a film of quiet beauty and grace.

An “unfilmable” story becomes a film of quiet beauty and grace.

The Film:

In my piece on Interpreter of Maladies, I wrote the following line: ““The Dead” may be the greatest short story ever written, but it is even more powerful when read as the conclusion of Dubliners.”  That is definitely true.  It is a short story of magnificent beauty and heart-breaking pain.  Like most of Joyce, it was probably long-considered unfilmable.  There is very little action in the story (a couple go to a party at the house of the husband’s elderly aunts for Epiphany and then go back to their hotel room before heading home in the morning).  Much of the narrative is interior.  The key epiphany moment happens during a description of a moment from the past.

But, by the time that John Huston would start making his film of The Dead in 1987, such unfilmable ideas had long been dropped.  Just three years before, Huston had made a great film from a novel long considered impossible to adapt to film (Under the Volcano) and it had been a decade and two decades, respectively, since films had been made of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (terrible) and Ulysses (decent).  He would make this film another of his family affairs.  In 1948, he had directed his father to an Oscar (while winning two of his own).  In 1985, he had directed his daughter to an Oscar (earning himself his final nomination at the same time).  This time, his daughter would be the star of the film and his son would write the film.  What would come out of it would be one of the most moving films of the year, a family affair that would show how great a director Huston was even as he was dying.  He directed from a wheelchair, hooked up to oxygen and by the time was released in December of 1987 he had been dead for nearly four months.

As I mentioned, there isn’t much action to the story.  So what it is about the film that makes it so moving.  Part of it is the party itself.  Two elderly women throw a party for many of their friends and for their nephew, a newspaper writer that they admire greatly even though he feels he has never lived up to his own expectations.  The party is alive with rich characters, with men who sneak out to drink during a song and then came back and cheer the loudest, with men who boast, with women who smile slyly but know the truth beneath the surface.  It is filmed with exquisite care and detail, with beautiful cinematography, award-worthy costumes and sets and solid character acting without a big name among them except for Anjelica.

But what really makes this film so incredible is the way that it concludes.  That was always going to be the tricky thing.  “The Dead” ends with two pages that are among the most beautiful ever set down in the English language, and particularly with a sentence that I hold above all others and which has been famous as one of the great closing lines for over a century now.  But those two pages are narrative, not lines of dialogue, a poetic look at the world outside a hotel window, of how we relate to other people, of what the future holds us for all.  What could one do with a narrative line like “One by one, they were all becoming shades.  Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, then fade and wither dismally with age.”  Well, you could do with that Huston’s decided to do.  They enlisted Donal McCann, the star of the film (an Irish actor who isn’t well-known in the States) and they gave it to him as an interior monologue.  We see what he sees, that snow falling in the darkness, his wife sleeping on the bed (“He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had died.”).  And he gives us the lines that would have been denied to us in a less bold film.  So, we close the film as we close the story, and close the collection, with my favorite line, one which still stands the test of time: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”