Irish Writer’s Centre, Dublin, Ireland
by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Edited by Thomas Morris
Dublin: Tramp Press, 2014
ISBN: 978 099 2817 015
215 pages. €15. Paperback
The introduction to this volume mainly focuses on the life and thoughts of the editor, Thomas Morris. “At a recent wedding reception I had to be told that I was using the wrong spoon for my soup”. However, buried amongst the amusing if somewhat irrelevant personal anecdotes, are some useful insights. “Being familiar with the original versions of these new stories will undoubtedly refract the loveliest of lights across Joyce’s own work, offering new readings and entry points into the originals (they could even be read as creative essays on Joyce’s stories”) (xi).
Having begun to read the new stories as independent or “stand alone” works, I found that I was missing something. Joyce. Unless you know every one of the originals inside out, by far the best way to savour this new collection is to read each story alongside the original which inspired it. As Thomas Morris points out, the new stories throw light on Joyce’s work, and vice versa. Of course the new versions indeed work independently – some are sturdier than others – but all are more interesting when considered in the light of the master text. It is definitely a case of one and one equalling considerably more than two.
Dubliners 100 follows the arrangement of the original collection, published in 1914. So it starts with “The Sisters” and ends with “The Dead”. We are not told whether the writers chose the stories they “cover”, to use Thomas Morris’s useful term borrowed from the terminology of the popular music world, or whether the allocation was an editorial decision. My guess is that some sort of compromise arrangement occurred – I find it hard to imagine that anyone would pick “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, say, if they could work with “The Dead” or “Clay” or “A Little Cloud”. But perhaps this is to be too subjective. Everyone to his favourite Dubliner stories.
Whatever happened, the writers, Thomas Morris tells us, had carte blanche to do anything they liked with the stories. “I asked them to “cover” the stories in whatever way they saw fit.” So how did they use this privilege?
There is more than one way to be inspired by a pre-existing story. A writer could base a new story on the main character, or one of the minor characters. She or he can use its storyline to structure a new version fleshed with different details, take its theme and base a newly invented storyline on that. The choice could be to emulate the style of the original – not a bad exercise for any writer, when the original style is Joyce’s in Dubliners (mimicking later Joyce, always a temptation for a young writer, seldom produces palatable results.) Of course, the new story can do several of these things simultaneously – take the old structure and characters, and nevertheless create something original and new. This is what storytellers in the oral tradition, and writers drawing their sources from tradition (such as Chaucer, or Boccaccio, sometimes Shakespeare) always did. The injunction to make everything new, including the very skeleton of the story, is a relatively new idea in the history of literature. Taking a ready-made bones and dressing them in new flesh and clothes is a practice as natural and old as the hills. Not surprisingly, this is what most of the writers of Dubliners 100 do with Joyce’s century old stories.
Mary Morrissy, John Boyne, Donal Ryan, Andrew Fox, Oona Crawley, Michelle Forbes and Elske Rahill, all recreate stories closely based on the original characters and storylines. John Kelly remains most faithful of all to “his” original, “A Little Cloud”, and, possibly as a result, his is one of the best stories in the collection. (The original is one of the best in Dubliners, which helps.) Evelyn Conlon, Belinda McKeon, Paul Murray, and Sam Coll are fairly faithful, but not as respectful as the former group. Patrick McCabe and Peter Murphy write stories whose links to the originals are minimal – McCabe’s a matter of underlying theme, and to some extent voice, while Murphy tells an entirely different story which contains some references to “The Dead,” the template he chose or was lucky enough to be allocated.
The most usual method of recreation is, one could say, a sort of translation. The original storyline and characters are transferred to our times. Locations tend to remain the same, with more or less precision – sensitively and sensibly, since the main point of Dubliners is that it is set in Dublin and about Dubliners. Props representing modern times abound; technological gimcracks – computers, the internet – are deployed in several stories. Actual clothes – often described by Joyce – are of course updated. A favourite device is to switch gender – Eveline becomes a boy called Evelyn, the schoolboys of “An Encounter” are schoolgirls, and so on. Very impressively, some writers catch the style of the original tale – a style which Joyce changes from story to story, depending on the imagined voice of his main protagonist – and run with it. John Boyne, for instance, transfers the rhythm of Joyce’s prose in “Araby” to his own version, and Andrew Fox perfectly captures the register of the young bloods in his take on “After the Race”. Other writers, such as Peter Murphy, just stick to their own voice.
Although they were not required to do this, to my knowledge, almost all writers, with one possible exception, located their stories in the present day, or, in a few instances, in the relatively recent past. Theoretically, someone could have chosen say Viking Dublin, or Dublin in the future, or even Joyce’s Dublin. It seems natural, however, to honour Joyce’s ambition, of documenting the inner and outer reality of Dubliners” lives in his day, by dealing with the Dublin and Dubliners best known to the new writers. The decision of the writers to write about the world as they know it raises interesting questions about some of the primary functions of good fiction. Is documentation of life as we observe it one of our goals? (I think it is. We are mostly anthropologists, among other things.)
Since, as a short story writer, I often resent the fact that collections of stories are reviewed collectively, since each story is a complete work of art in its own right, and deserves the critical attention given to a novel. I have asked for permission to reproduce my response to each of the fifteen stories here. This makes for a very long review, I am afraid. But it is the only way to do anything like justice to the short stories. These sometimes cursory responses are, in essence, notes on the stories, each one of which I read in conjunction with its begetter.
Patrick McCabe: “The Sisters”
Patrick McCabe opens the volume with “The Sisters”, one of a group in Dubliners dealing with the loss of childhood innocence. It is the story of the dead priest who once dropped the chalice on the altar and who subsequently lost his wits. The story is told by a schoolboy, a neighbour who used to be an altar boy for the priest, and provides us with a wonderful example of Joyce’s technique. Everything is seen from the point of view of the boy, who is intelligent and highly articulate, but inexperienced and innocent. The reader is allowed to suspect there is more to the priest than the boy understands – that his illness was caused by something less innocent than the accidental breaking of the chalice. But this is never fully explained.
Patrick McCabe is one of very few writers in this anthology who has chosen to depart radically from the original, leaving behind its storyline and even its setting. His narrator is also a clever schoolboy, who witnesses a tragedy which he dimly understands, and loses some of his innocence. McCabe’s story deals with the accidental burning of a terrace of houses in a small country town. He emulates, fairly successfully, Joyce’s style in “The Sisters”, in a story which is more rambunctious and highly comedic than the original, although that too has some zany moments – particularly in the reproduction of banal but colourful dialogue.
Mary Morrissy: “An Encounter”
This is another story of the loss of innocence. Mary Morrissy transfers the essence of “An Encounter” – an encounter between two schoolboys and a paedophile, who masturbates to his own mildly pornographic script – to a contemporary setting. The boys are replaced by girls and she tells the story using the second person – rather daringly. The setting of Joyce’s story is the river Liffey and Ringsend, which Morrissy replaces with the Dodder and Terenure, respectively (reminding one that the Dublin of the work is very specific and very confined. Its southern boundary is Ballsbridge, its northern Drumconda, and it extends no further west than Chapelizod. Bray, Greystones and Skerries are mentioned, but as summer holiday destinations. Nobody in Dubliners lives in Rathmines or Rathgar or Ranelagh, let alone Terenure – although plenty of people did live in those suburbs at the turn of the 19th century. The original “An Encounter” is serious in tone, with an extremely strong sense of place, and brilliant in its production of the monologue of the strange man encountered by the mitching schoolboys. Morrissy’s story is richer in humour than Joyce’s. She mirrors his rich evocation of a Dublin place, and, although she sticks in the main to his structure, she gives her story a most unJoycean twist in the tail – which is typical of her own storytelling and extremely effective. By managing to be true to herself and her own talent and way of writing, while simultaneously reflecting “An Encounter” (one of the best stories in the original collection), she provides one of the most memorable stories in the new collection.
John Boyne: “Araby”
John Boyne succeeds in capturing the very rhythm of Joyce’s prose, and writes his version of “Araby” in the lyrical, sad first person tone of the original. He faithfully maintains the location of North Richmond Street, and sticks closely to the master storyline. Instead of being in love with an elusive girl, his narrator is attracted to a boy, Mangan, who invites him to a rugby match. The hapless narrator walks northwards to Fairview – rather than south to Ballsbridge – and arrives as the match is almost over. Mangan is there, but all but ignores him. The narrator has a truly Joycean epiphany – “The part of me that would be driven by desire and loneliness had awoken and was planning cruelties and anguish that I could not yet imagine.”
John Boyne sticks closely to the original story, to its theme, its plot, its character and even its style. His is a simple account of youthful desire followed by disappointment and an insight into a sad nature of life. It conforms exactly to the shape of the short story designed by Joyce. “If reality is primarily a transcendent, timeless ideal or a projection of human desire for transcendence, the best way to reflect this is to construct narratives that centre on revelatory moments when that ideal or desire is manifested”.
Donal Ryan: “Eveline”
In Donal Ryan’s story, roles are switched. The eponymous heroine becomes an Irishman, Evelyn, who is in love with Hope, a trafficked girl from another country. The bureaucratic residency problems encountered by refugees, and slaves who are trafficked into Ireland involuntarily, are referred to. The story ends just as Joyce’s does – the Irish lover, now male, abandons the foreigner, in this case drawn by a sense of duty towards his mother. The theory that Eveline is a code name for prostitution in Victorian literature may have influenced his decision; possibly it is co-incidental and his Hope is merely a new version of the Argentinian sailor of the original Eveline.
Theme and content rather than style are what inspire him. He allows Hope a bigger role than the sailor gets in Joyce’s story – which is a stream of Eveline’s thoughts almost exclusively – but sticks more or less to the shape of the original. It is not set in Dublin, though – I prefer the modern versions which retain the Dublin setting, so crucial to the point of the original collection. Joyce’s Dubliners brings us on a quite specific tour of the city, Eveline’s territory being the North Wall, and perhaps the East Wall.
Andrew Fox: “After The Race”
Joyce’s story covers bigger swathes of the city than he usually can manage, since his characters in this story are in a car, unlike most of the others, making do with the tram or shank’s pony. The story is a snapshot of a summer evening in town in the company of rich young men without much ambition – the sort of people we encounter in Brideshead Revisited – somewhat wild, hard drinking, chaps, not long out of college. His main character has been to “Dublin University” and also Cambridge. It’s a look at the lives of the golden set, perhaps nouveau riche, but that seems not to be the main point. These are the sort of people Joyce himself would have known well in UCD.
Andrew Fox stays close to the theme and characters of the original. A group of wealthy students, one the son of an Irishman who made good during the boom, live it up in New York. Modernised, the motor race is replaced by a run in Central Park. Otherwise, the action – après-race drinking and debauchery, gambling, followed by the usual sad epiphany, the anticlimax, the little death, the hangover, the cold dawn of the morning after the night before. Fox rises to the style of the original too. He doesn’t emulate its style exactly, but he translates it to the contemporary equivalent. “After The Race”, dealing as it does with educated young bloods, has a richer and more complex register than the tales of children or unsophisticated girls and women. The story demands a certain sophistication in its style, and this is impressively achieved.
Evelyn Conlon: “Two Gallants”
In Joyce’s story of class, sexism and exploitation, Corley and the more sensitive Lenehan plot to borrow money from a “slavey”. The style is sophisticated enough apart from the dialogue. Lenehan (surely rather like Joyce himself) is educated and the register reflects this.
One of the most structurally solid stories in the original collection, it has a stronger plot than usual in the epiphanies or snapshots: pathos, disgust, humour, good dialogue and sex are not unusual in Dubliners. But this story has an ingredient we don’t often encounter there: a bit of tension.
Evelyn Conlon moves it from October to September (indicating that she notices the season of the original story. Most months, seasons, weathers, and times of day, are represented in the original Dubliners. Even that, he thought of, as he patterned his collection! Care with the tiny details is always the mark of the master craftsman.) Conlon’s story is written in a colloquial smart style which is her own but mirrors the smartly youthful tone of the original. Trinity College is mentioned in “Two Gallants”, and Conlon locates her story in the college, at a Joyce conference. This allows for much ironic commentary on the Joyce industry. For the story line, she uses the original idea – two young male students concoct a plot to steal a girl’s essay. Things don’t go according to plan, however – gender roles, expectations, have changed, since 1914, and Conlon’s is perhaps the most original and optimistic story in this new collection. It also reveals an understanding that the society which Joyce describes has changed in some fundamental ways, and that this affects fiction. Joyce’s Dubliners is a revolutionary work of literary art but it is also a work of social realism. His characters suffer due to the conventions, mores and laws of the time: gender inequality is a strong theme, as is the abuse of children and class inequality. But some things have changed in Dublin, and Conlon is one of the few authors in the new collection to focus on the shift in gender politics which is one of the most radical changes to have affected Ireland. Many aspects of the human condition never change. But some attitudes and behaviours do. History is progressive. It is not as easy for two gallants to cheat a girl as it was a hundred years ago – although they can, of course, try.
Oona Frawley: “The Boarding House” (and Elske Rahill: “A Mother”)
The original story is one of those in which Joyce lampoons a middle aged, managerial type of woman – the only kind of woman for whom he has little sympathy, in Dubliners. Old women, young women, poor women, he always treated with great compassion. But the competent matron is a figure of fun to be derided. Mooney, of “The Boarding House”, and Mrs Kearney, “A Mother”, are portrayed so convincingly as ridiculous and nasty harridans that the reader joins with him in condemning their controlling ways. Even Joyce had a blind spot, and was trapped by history, as we all are. In ridiculing middle aged women – and pitting them against young beautiful women, their daughters – he conforms to a tradition as ancient as Aristotle. But should 21st century writers agree with him?
Oona Frawley, and Elske Rahill who writes a version of “A Mother”, don’t question Joyce’s gender politics in these stories, or question it much. They both write very entertaining versions of the originals, translating the ghastly female characters, pushy and overbearing, into modern settings. Oona Frawley’s take on Marie Mooney is clever and impressive, acknowledging that attitudes to sex and marriage have changed dramatically. Her Mrs Mooney, instead of forcing a marriage, challenges her son-in-law about his interest in on-line porn. In Elske Rahill’s imaginative, zanily funny, story, Mrs Kearney is a translated from her original form, as a pushy mother who wants her daughter’s performance fees to be paid, to a crazy upholder of traditional family values. Both mothers are control freaks in the original stories, but Joyce’s values in these pieces in particular can bear scrutiny. Most women writers I know would have difficulty in agreeing with Joyce that it is OK not to pay a woman artist according to her contract. In general, we no longer believe that it is ok to impregnate a young woman and dump her. While Frawley’s and Rahill’s stories have many admirable qualities, I sense they have both been seduced by the power of Joyce’s storytelling and an opportunity to reassess the gender politics of the master has been lost.
John Kelly: “A Little Cloud”
John Kelly sticks closer to the original template than any other author, transferring Joyce’s comparison of two lives, one in the fast lane and one in the ordinary humdrum of marriage in suburbia, to our times. Chandler is now a journalist in RTE, Gallaher a hot shot writer in New York. They meet in the Merrion Hotel (which somehow doesn’t have the exoticism, the magical wonder, that Corless’s has, for the original Chandler – but one sympathises with Kelly. There is nowhere so exotic, so unattainable, really, nowadays – I can’t think of a restaurant or hotel in Dublin that would seem so impossibly glamorous to an RTE journalist as Corless’s does to Little Chandler.) I loved this respectful treatment. Kelly’s story is essentially a faithful translation of “A Little Cloud” to the lifestyle and idiom and Dublin of today. The simple approach is often the best, in all art, and this was one of my favourites. Interesting that it is used by the writer who is more of a non-fiction writer than a novelist, usually. Whatever the motive for the approach, it is eminently effective.
Belinda McKeon: “Counterparts”
McKeon sticks to the office setting of much of “Counterparts”. She moves the office to New York, which may not be such a good idea, but the theory seems to be that the internet, social networking and so on, mean that it doesn’t much matter where you are. We live in a global society, as it is said, rather than a few streets stretching from the Tolka to the Dodder. Her protagonist, the translation of the unlucky and hapless Farrington, is addicted not to alcohol but to the internet. She’s not popping out for a pint every hour but she wastes an awful lot of time on Facebook, and finally gets her comeuppance. “Counterparts” is one of the most disturbing stories in Joyce’s collection – the tale of Farrington, an alcoholic, who “is bullied by his wife when he is sober and who bullies her when he is drunk.” Pawning something, he spends a night drinking heavily in various Dublin pubs, many with names still familiar to us. Then he comes home and beats his son savagely for no reason. Joyce is a skilled exponent of mimesis rather than exegesis, the “show don’t tell” method of writing, and nowhere is this used to better effect than in this story.
Although there is a child abuse element in Belinda McKeon’s story, it lacks the raw horror of the scene in Farrington’s cold and dark kitchen – this is not her fault, by any means, but signals a characteristic of the new collection as a whole. The up-to-date settings – whether on-line or physical – seem to lack the vigour, the atmospheric power, of the Joycean settings. Nostalgia plays a part in this reaction, undoubtedly. But there is more to it than that. Joyce conveys the sensuality of his settings – its concrete texture, its light and shade, its heat, even in contemporary places. I don’t know why, but suspect it has to do not so much with the writing as with the quality of the places themselves.
Michelle Forbes: “Clay”
Maria is a tiny single woman who works and lives in a laundry in Ballsbridge – The Dublin by Lamplight Laundry – (is this a “refuge” for “unmarried mothers” or “fallen women’?). She crosses the city by tram to Drumcondra, on Hallow Eve (as it was still called in Dublin when I was a child). Two mishaps befall her. Some plumcake she buys in the city centre is mislaid, or perhaps stolen, on the tram. (Plums usually suggest sex in Joyce – “what is a home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat? Incomplete’, we read in Ulysses). In the divination game involving saucers, she selects not fruit but clay, meaning death. The hostess surreptitiously removes the saucer and replaces it with one containing a prayer book, and Maria is none the wiser. The story closes with a heartbreaking rendition of Balfe’s song, “I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls”, by Maria.
“Clay” is a perfect short story. Neat as an apple, it is one of the very finest in the original Dubliners. Aesthetically, it beats “The Dead”.
Two very tiny things happen – her plum cake is stolen, Maria selects the saucer containing clay. It is a cliché to say a whole life is contained in a story… and indeed it is a lie, because of course plenty of detail is missing. But such a tiny story, about tiny events, can give us the deepest understanding and insight into a life. Joyce manages to be infinitely compassionate; he pities Maria, we pity Maria, everyone pities Maria. On the other hand, we also see that she is content with her life, restricted as it is. She is loved, if at arms” length. Even this he portrays. The voice – the story is told in Maria’s simple style, short sentences, vivid images of ordinary life: “She had lovely ferns and wax plants”.
Is it in the simplest of his stories that Joyce is at his very best? The words, the sentences, the images, in this story are clear and sharp as diamonds. It functions perfectly on the surface as a clear tale of Maria’s visit to Drumcondra, and it functions at a poetic level: she loses her plumcake, she dreams of marble halls. Anyone who doubts the sheer wondrousness of what I have recently heard condemned as “social realism” in literature should read “Clay” and think again.
Michelle Forbes homes in on the tram – Maria travels by tram, and a hundred years later, we have a new tram in Dublin, the Luas. Her protagonist, Conor, is too fat, whereas Maria is too small and thin (she looks like a tiny witch); fashions in weight were different a hundred years ago, when being too thin suggested illness, as obesity does today. Forbes, like John Kelly, performs a fairly direct translation of “Clay” to modern Dublin. His journey is from town to Cherrywood. It’s Halloween. Conor meets various types – a dressed up child, a pregnant woman who is not offered a seat, a teenager who wants to buy drugs – on the tram. His character is similar to Maria’s. He is a good worker, polite, well regarded, generally seen as on the margins of life, by everyone. Like Maria, he has dreams of love and happiness. “C’mon baby make my dreams come true/Work me boy do the thing you do” is a good modernisation of “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls” – and the clay on his shoes (picked up on the derelict Nama site surrounding Cherrywood Luas stop) is an impressive enough translation of the clay on the saucer – if not as readily meaningful.
Forbes sticks largely to Conor’s voice in her narrative, with just the occasional slip into literary language – “outside, the black dampness of the night seemed to have licked the streets clean and spread the houses sideways in pristine streaks” is nice, but the lesson to be learnt, for a writer, from “Clay”, is stick to the voice. This is one of the stories in the original Dubliners where Joyce is absolutely faithful to his character’s idiom and way of thinking – he never slips out of Maria’s perspective, even when she is blindfolded. And she sees the world, when not blindfolded, with a precision which is unsurpassed elsewhere in the book. Forbes is to be commended for recreating Maria in a convincing modern form (Conor, like his model, is very lovable), and for painting a picture of the new Dublin. That is a very bleak picture, in which the colour and rich textures of the city are replaced by derelict sites, and plum cake by drugs and Mars bars, ancient Hallowe’en games by the internet, may reflect the reader’s perspective rather than anything else. Even names like “Drumcondra” (especially perhaps Drumcondra) are more evocative, richer, than names like “Cherrywood” (although it has the hint of plums in it.) But in a hundred years time, who knows? Nostalgia colours our reading of the original Dubliners, which seemed much harder edged when it came out than it does today.
Paul Murray: “A Painful Case”
“Mr Duffy abhorred anything which betokened mental or physical disorder.” This is the most eventful story in Dubliners. Stuff happens: an adulterous relationship, alcoholism, a death on a train track. Anna Karenina is condensed into a short story. Anna Karenina without sex, and a Vronsky who is more like Karenin than Anna’s dashing lover. The terrain is ambitious too… we’re outside the canals, we’re in one of Dublin’s most picturesque suburbs, Chapelizod, in a house with a view of the river. The style is educated, pompous, as befits the voice of a bank official who spends his evenings at his landlady’s piano or at a concert or the opera, whose bookcases include the complete Wordsworth and Thus Spake Zarathustra, albeit arranged according to weight and size of volume (although, in fairness, sometimes you have to do this, as librarians and bibliophiles know).
Given that “A Painful Case” is one of Joyce’s most eventful short stories, it is appropriate that one of Ireland’s most imaginative and lively writers chose it or was chosen to “cover” it. Paul Murray skilfully balances fidelity to the original with wild invention. His James Duffy is a true reflection of the original in his emotional paralysis. Like him, he lives in Chapelizod, and takes exercise in the Phoenix Park. He loves music, and eats in restaurants, but only because he is a restaurant reviewer, successful because he is so vitriolic (nothing makes such entertaining reading as a cruel hatchet job.) The new James Duffy’s hard little heart is melted, not by a married woman, but by a monk in a silent order who manages a monastic restaurant, Tacito. The storyline progresses, and follows Joyce’s as to main plot points, but Paul Murray’s own gift for comic writing cannot be suppressed. Joyce can be amusing, and “A Painful Case” is rich in irony, but far from hilariously funny. Paul Murray, one of our most gifted young writers, succeeds in combining rollicking comedy and real tragedy in his version, in what is probably the most original version in the new book.
Eimear McBride: “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”
“Look at all the factories down by the quays there, idle! Look at all the money there is in the country if we only worked the old industries, the mills, the ship-building yards and factories. It’s capital we want.” From abroad.
Plus ça change.
“Ivy Day in the Committee Room” is written almost exclusively in dialogue, whereas most stories in Dubliners contain little enough conversation. Crofton, the young ineffective canvasser, doing it for the money, is the only silent one among the bunch of nattering politicians. Crofton is the observer – like the watchful, introverted people we mainly meet in Dubliners. Politics is all talk, seems to be the message, in this tale which is more play than short story. It is many people’s favourite, but I should admit that it is the one I like least.
A challenge, then, for Eimear McBride. And indeed, all writers know that committee meetings, parties, large gatherings, are always challenging. In folk narrative, there is a pattern called “The law of two to a scene’, and it’s a useful ancient storytelling technique for any story writer to bear in mind. One to a scene may work even better, in a short story. In “Ivy Day”, we have – eight or nine. Definitely more than a quorum. The silent Crofton – possibly Joyce’s alter ego, anyway a good representation of the quiet writer – is the one who is most memorable.
He all but disappears in McBride’s version, which transfers “Ivy Day” to the night of the downfall of Bertie Ahern (I think.) She tells the story exclusively in dialogue, retains most of the names. Interestingly, the dialect used is not much different from that of a hundred years ago, and nevertheless rings true. Relying only on talk – no internet, mobile phones, the other devices which flag our new age in most of the stories – what her version mainly demonstrates is that, at the core of politics not much seems to have changed over the century. At the heart of the system are groups of men chattering in rooms. (Today, there might be a token woman… though quite possibly not).
Elske Rahill: “A Mother”
Although it is open to interpretation, its last lines suggesting ambiguity, the story of how Mrs Kearney, mother of the pianist Kate, fights against a barrage of men to obtain her daughter’s fee for performing in the Antient Concert Rooms, has a misogynistic ring to it. In folktales, literature and drama, for centuries, no character is as derided as the mother of marriageable daughters. Mrs Kearny is Mrs Bennett, only more intelligent. Is Joyce on her side? Definitely not 100%. She is in the right, she is mistreated, but she is still represented as ridiculous and dislikeable. We are not enjoined to pity her as we pity, say, Maria, or Eveline, or the hapless Mrs. Sinico (it’s ok to be a middle aged woman if you are vulnerable in love… but then you will probably have to jump under a train in the closing scene).
Elske Rahill, however, takes the wholly negative view of her heroine, and focuses on her interest in Irish (very marginal in the original). In this story, a link is made between the Irish language and conservatism – a link which indeed exists, in my extensive experience of Gaeilgeóiri, but is far from universal among us. Moreover, it is a cliché. Of course, it is true that Joyce held negative views of the Irish movement, and it is reasonable to mirror them in the new version of his story. The exaggeration of his misogyny is less endearing. Alas, it is all too easy in fiction to pit an older woman against a younger one, and I have often been guilty of exactly the same thing myself, in my fiction. We should all beware of our blind spots. This, I realise, is a political and personal judgment but, as an Irish speaker, daughter of a Gaeltacht man, I find anti-Irish-language fiction offensive (I find it offensive in Joyce), and I don’t understand why it continues to be acceptable, much more acceptable than other forms of racism. Subjective, I know, but there it is.
As a story, this one is highly entertaining and imaginative, and many people will love it.
Sam Coll: “Grace”
Mr Kernan bites off the tip of his tongue, while drunk. He is visited by his friends, who drink in his bedroom, chatter idly about popes, literature, people, religion, and decide to renew their baptismal vows. The story ends with a scene in a church, where the preacher enjoins them to balance their moral books before the divine auditor examines them. Not one of my favourite stories, it is rich in dialogue, designed to reveal the pompous ignorance of the Dublin middle classes. This is one of Joyce’s comic, social stories – one of the sub-group of “dialogue” stories, including also “Ivy Day..” and “The Dead” (part one.)
Sam Coll transfers the story to contemporary Dublin, and writes it in a lively version of Joycean English which one encounters often in creative writing classes, and which could be called “faux Joycean”. It has little resemblance to the style of the original story, though it reflects indirectly the style of the dialogue there. Perhaps this is deliberate – the story is about pretentious people and the style reflects this.
Peter Murphy: “The Dead”
“The Dead” is generally regarded as the jewel of Dubliners. I have always so regarded it, and focussed on it in my reading and consideration of the short story. Indeed it is a great story, but this re-reading of the entire collection highlights contenders for “best story in the book.” “A Little Cloud”, for instance. “Clay”, “A Painful Case”, “Counterparts”. All are magnificent examples of great modern short stories.
“The Dead” is a two-part story. It combines a social story with a quiet interior story – in short, it enjoys the best of both worlds, and represents the two types of short story created in Dubliners. First we have the party for the 6th December, with its dialogue and chatter and array of Dublin types; then we have the interior story of Gabriel, of his desire for love and sex, ending with the frustration of that desire: the disappointed bridge, the poetic epiphany, absolutely typical of Dubliners in general.
Gabriel is an educated literary man, so the voice is sophisticated Joyce – not servant maid simple or drunkard rambunctious. Just ordinary literary prose.
Peter Murphy departs radically from the original story – even farther from his model than Pat McCabe from his. He is having none of it. Instead he spins a yarn, possibly set in the future, or in no time known to us, in what I think is a successful invented language, possibly intended to represent travellers’ cant. The narrator is washed up on an island, comes upon a sort of book club assembled around a fire in Bargytown on Sea. They tell a tale of the burning of the library in the town a week earlier, in which all books except for that containing “The Dead” perished. Someone retells “The Dead”, it is generally derided, and it, too, is burnt. Any story worth its salt can’t be explained so much as felt in the blood and bones”, “The Doc”, says.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Rereading the original Dubliners alongside its new counterpart in the form of Dubliners 100, reminded me of how brilliant the original work is. Of how vivid, how sharply focussed, how evocative, all of Joyce’s snapshots of various kinds of Dubliner, various age groups, various classes, various places, various atmospheres, various seasons, times of the day, weather. Various restaurants, various places to go on a Sunday. It is like a brilliantly shot film of Dublin, capturing every shadow and nuance with his supersensitive lens.
The unifying themes are Dublin, and the young Joyce’s view of the city as a place where everyone was congealed in a sort of paralysis. If the stories were about the sexual act – instead of about sexual relations, as most of them are – they would all narrate coitus interruptus – in most cases, coitus non startus. What is desired is never attained, and often what is desired is sex and/or love. Or, sometimes, dreams of a better life – marble halls, Argentina, the glamorous life of London – are briefly envisioned, hoped for, crystallized in a song, and thwarted. In other words, Dubliners harbour the desires common to most human beings no matter when or where they live.
The new versions all understand this.
They take on board several aspects of the originals. The characters are as a rule taken as given, dressed in modern clothes, sometimes given a gender change. Props are updated – technical devices in particular abound. The (sacred) Dublin settings are generally maintained, new aspects of the old places sometimes highlighted, sometimes not. On the whole, a sense of continuity is evident.
Apart from clothes and gadgets, not much appears to have changed. The new Dubliners are as disappointed in their dreams as the old Dubliners.
The influence of the original almost demanded this. But is it valid? Dubliners the original is a literary work. My re-reading of it impresses upon me that it is indeed one of the greatest books ever written in Ireland. And it is also a work of social realism. Joyce shows us what a goodly selection of Dubliners were like, as they went about their daily lives. He shows us what they looked like – the physiques of almost every key character is described in detail – where they lived, what they wore, ate, where they worked. He goes inside their heads and hearts and reveals their secret desires and disappointments.
The main problem for most of them is lack of sex, love and money. Sexual mores have changed completely in Dublin since 1914. The iron hand of religion holds little or no sway (Paul Murray gets this – as he has to imagine hard to find an illicit love that has even a tiny shock effect.) Gender politics have changed fundamentally, as Evelyn Conlon reveals in her story. The types of Dubliner who are typical are different from Maria and Mr Duffy and Mrs Mooney. While new professions – television journalists, restaurant critics – are represented in Dubliners 100, mostly we encounter white natives, dressed in new clothes. The surface has changed, but the hearts are the same. If I were trying to find fault, I would say that in general opportunities to explore the possibility of deeper changes in human nature, then and now, have been lost. Not altogether, though. Some of the new authors flag the change in attitudes to sexuality, to gender, to religion, to the human body. In the cases of those who do not, they may simply reflect the fact that much has not changed.
Content is one thing. Literary art is another (though everything is connected.) As I have heard one of the authors saying in an interview about the project, she feared it. Dubliners is a hard act to follow. Joyce was a young writer when he wrote these stories. But he was a very educated, clever, sensitive and skilful one. He had, it is clear, extraordinary gifts. Who would stand comparison with him?
For me, with every respect to the new writers, the great pleasure was in going back to the original Dubliners and asking the question: what makes it so good? How does he do it?
The snapshot simile for Joyce’s stories is a bit of a cliché. But a photographic analogy is the only one I can come up with to sum up what his prose can do. He selects, with great care, various Dublin types: Maria the little spinster in the laundry, the swashbuckling students, romantic or adventurous schoolboys, a priest, a middle class married couple, and so on. He places them in the familiar settings – schools, houses, shops, streets. The stories happen at selected times of the day – morning, afternoon, evening, night, in various weathers, and at various seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter are represented, as are some significant and rather typically Irish holidays, such as Hallowe’en and Little Christmas. The selection of characters, places, times, and weathers, is careful. The scenes are representative, the pictures beautifully composed to show the truth as seen by the photographer. There is light and shade (very evident, and conscious, in, say “The Dead”). And there is the high resolution.
It is the latter, I think, which is hardest to emulate. Joyce had a gift for it, which few writers possess. His writer’s eye, unlike his real eye, had clearer vision than most people’s. It is almost impossible to reproduce, in modern guise or any other, the perfection of his prose.
But it is always worth trying.
Dubliners 100 is an excellent project. It throws light on Joyce in a writerly, creative way. Like many good books, like the original Dubliners, it makes a strong mark on the reader, and it is inspiring to the writer. It opens doors; it makes one realise that one could spend one’s whole life writing about people who live between Drumcondra and Ballsbridge, and that would not be a bad literary life.
As he knew.
What does Joyce do in Dubliners?
Portrays a selection of Dubliners in a variety of Dublin settings.
Little things happen to the characters, or, if you like, almost happen and don’t happen. Their dreams are never matched by reality.