It’s been 101 years since the first publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners and I am most likely somewhere around the billionth person to have something to say about it. Be that as it may I am still going to say something, as this entry is all about Fiction written before 1950 and I picked Dubliners to read and review.
Most of the stuff I read is fiction, and most of the fiction I read has been published after 1950, so I picked publications from before the halfway mark of the 20th century to get outside my comfort zone.
I actually picked up Dubliners before I conceived of this new form of blogging and the reason was simple: I was taking a trip to Ireland with my fiancée’s family. We were there for two weeks; one week we spent touring around the beautiful country and another we spent in Dublin. I figured, where was a better place to read Dubliners than in Dublin?
What is left to say about Joyce’s work of short stories that hasn’t already been said? Can I possibly contribute anything to the overall conversation about this work that hasn’t been said and said far better?
I have to be honest, nothing, really. But I didn’t read Dubliners to study it or to find something in it that hasn’t been found, so why I won’t I try to write that. No, I’m here to reflect upon my experience reading the book fresh from a trip to the city that inspired it and to ask the question, for a lover of more modern fiction, does Dubliners still hold up?
Read on to find out.
The River Liffey screams, “Read our feckin’ literature!”
Dubliners vs. 50 Shades of Grey: My bookstore has been around since 2009 on New York City’s Upper West Side.
In our time there, we have sold 236 copies of 50 Shades of Grey.
I bought the ‘Modern Library’ version of Dubliners, published by Random House, which has sold 6 copies. We’ve carried four different versions of the book, and the total amount of Dubliners we’ve sold is 60, with the ‘Vintage’ edition, published by Knopf, being the clear favorite with 45 copies sold.
So all in all, we’ve sold 176 more copies of 50 Shades of Grey than we have Dubliners. And 230 more copies than the version I read. I was one of those 6, by the way.
And no, I was not one of those 236.
45 copies is no match for E.L. James’…uh… masterpiece? Um.
Worst Literature related Click-Bait article of the week: A recent Buzzfeed article lists the best Harry Potter themed wedding ideas, including gaudy Hogwarts House-themed high heels, exiting the ceremony through an arc of wands (where the hell do you get 150 wands for guests?) and exchanging vows over a Goblet of Fire.
I’m getting married in August; maybe I should have suggested more literature themed things to do for our wedding. Here’s a list I’ve put together that I think I’ll suggest to my fiancée tonight:
-Do the ceremony in a Slaughterhouse.
– Have the officiant speak entirely in small caps.
– Instead of suits, the groomsmen and I will wear bathrobes and carry towels with us.
– Have a band lead by a talking fruit bat wearing sunglasses.
-Before getting married, do everything I can to turn myself into a slightly bland-mid 30’s young man with a love for jazz and classical music, swimming, and cats. But I often lose the cat I love. It happens.
– Invite guests who only used to be/still are warped variations of gods, fairy tales and mythological creatures.
– Ask my groomsmen to toast me in a highly poetic, slightly political style, using hyper-researched bizarre facts that somehow lead me to the inside of a pack of cigarettes.
– Anyone who wants to get married must be crazy, and it is a rule crazy people can’t get married! But I must try to prove that I’m not crazy so I can get married, even though the desire to get married means I’m crazy and so therefore can’t get married. But If I don’t want to get married then I can’t get married but at least I’m sane? Ah!
I’ll run these by her, see what she says.
(Trying to guess which authors I’m referencing? The official Whale and the Petunias Wedding Literature Game answers can be found at the end of this post! Good luck!)
Harry seems unamused.
Book in the Movies: With the Oscars not far behind us, I feel it is worth mentioning a few Oscar-nominated movies that you may not have known were books.
Movies nominated for BEST PICTURE:
‘The Imitation Game’ was based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
‘The Theory of Everything’ was based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking by Jane Wilde Hawking
‘American Sniper’ was based on the book by the same name by Chris Kyle
Movies with an actress nominated for BEST ACTRESS
‘Gone Girl’ was based on the book by the same name by Gillian Flynn (Rosamund Pike nominated)
‘Wild’ was based on the book by the same name by Cheryl Strayed
Even ‘Big Hero 6’, which won for best animated film, is based on the Marvel Comic Book series of the same name.
Also nominated was ‘Inherent Vice’ (for Adapted Screenplay) which is based on a Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name.
If you loved any of those movies, I recommend picking up the book they were based on.
Julianne Moore was nominated and won for ‘Still Alice’. She has yet to return my phone calls.
Book/Author news: Extremely sad news recently, as Terry Pratchett, world renown fantasy author of more than 50 books passed away. Pratchett was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s in 2007 and had fought a battle with it ever since, continuing to publish even to this year.
There is so much to be said about Terry Pratchett and I am not the only person who was a great lover of his writing. I’ve already written a little piece when I looked at Snuff in an earlier blog post. What I want to briefly discuss is Terry Pratchett and death.
One of my favorite characters in Pratchett’s novels is Death, a Grim Reaper personification who speaks in SMALL CAPS, that exists in the Discworld Universe. Death makes a cameo in almost every single Terry Pratchett book, even Good Omens, a book he wrote with Neil Gaiman.
Pratchett created a character that offered some hilarious situations and fascinating tales. But Death is somber and intelligent, interested in humans and how they work. Pratchett’s Death is strong; he’s final. From his books, we get a glimpse of just what Pratchett thought about death. Here are a few quotes from both the character and a few others on the subject of death, dying and living:
PEOPLE CAN”T SEE ME, THEY SIMPLY WON’T ALLOW THEMSELVES TO DO IT. UNTIL IT’S TIME, OF COURSE. WIZARDS CAN SEE ME, AND CATS. BUT YOUR AVERAGE HUMAN…NO, NEVER. He blew a smoke ring at the sky, and added, STRANGE, BUT TRUE.
THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES.
Death isn’t cruel – merely terribly, terribly good at his job.
I AM DEATH, NOT TAXES. I TURN UP ONLY ONCE.
There are no delusions for the dead. Dying is like waking up after a really good party, when you have one or two seconds of innocent freedom before you recollect all the things you did last night which seemed so logical and hilarious at the time, and then you remember the really amazing thing you did with a lampshade and two balloons, which had them in stitches, and now you realize you’re going to have to look a lot of people in the eye today and you’re sober now and so are they but you can both remember.
Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?
“Pardon me for living, I’m sure.”
NO ONE GETS PARDONED FOR LIVING.
People’s whole lives do pass in front of their eyes before they die. The process is called ‘living’
Terry Pratchett regarded Death with a dark sense of humor, but he didn’t so much laugh at death as he did create a character with which to give death more humanity. He made death something not to be afraid of; not to laugh at but to try and understand. He did for death what Douglas Adams proceeded to do for aliens and space; he made us laugh at it but also realize that it is not something to be scared of. Pratchett asked the question, ‘What if Death is just as confused by humanity as humanity is confused by Death?’
Humans have always been afraid of death because it is the ultimate unknown. We have a long history of trying to appease death, to cheat it or to control it. Much the way Douglas Adams made us laugh at Aliens and Space instead of thinking of them as the great unknown or beings that come to Earth to destroy it, Pratchett gave us a view of death that made us laugh, made us think and made us sympathetic. Death has a definite growth through the Discworld books, as he grows more interested in Humanity.
The humor all lies in the way Death is constantly perplexed by humans. Terry Pratchett was the master of parallels. There was so much in the Discworld that had a counterpart in our world, and the way Pratchett played with that always made for a great deal of humor and a little bit of enlightenment. He uses Death in the same way”: just as humans always tried to control, appease, and avoid Death, so too does Death do the same with humans.
Terry Pratchett knew how final Death was, how unavoidable. But he used that as a shared experience for us all. He looked at it with a dark sense of humor but with humor nonetheless. With his character of Death he urged us not to be afraid, but to accept and to think critically about the ways in which we treat Death. He made us laugh with the ways Death treated humans but also never let us forget that death is both inevitable and final, no matter how much we think on it or laugh with it.
And of course, his final tweets, his final bit or written word to the world, was a conversation with Death. I leave you with one final quote from Death from Pratchett’s twitter account:
at last, sir terry, we must walk together.
He will be missed immensely.
Farewell, Sir Terry.
Retail gripe of the week: Let’s talk about asking for items purchased to be gift-wrapped.
Some stores, like mine, offer complimentary gift-wrapping upon purchase. This is wonderful for both customer and store, as we provide a service that makes people want to shop with us for their gift-related needs, and you, the customer, are able to take advantage of a convenience in buying gifts.
Let’s discuss some things that I wish customers would think about when asking for gift-wrapping at my store.
-Asses the store you are in when it comes to your gift wrapping needs. Some stores wrap things no matter what, others are small gift-centered stores that gift-wrap after almost every purchase.
Some, like mine, are Book Stores that sometimes employ 25-Year old men. There is no gift-wrapping training we are given, there is no crash course, simply the skills said 25-Year old man comes to the store with. If you want what you buy to look super-cute and beautifully wrapped, know this: while I will always try to do the best I can, just use your critical thinking skills when it comes to where you are and who is wrapping. Maybe the 25 year old man isn’t going to give you perfection. Maybe if it doesn’t look cute enough or perfect enough, you’d be better off wrapping it yourself.
-Please don’t make faces or criticize while I’m wrapping. You know what that is? It’s just mean.
While a coworker was wrapping something for a woman once she exclaimed, ‘I didn’t think there was anyone in the world worse than I was at wrapping, but you are!’ She then proceeded to try to help, which, of course, was not helpful. Do you think that makes us want to wrap something for you more? Or try harder?
-You don’t need to ask me to take the price tag off, it’s the first thing I do. Half the time, people ask me this when I’m halfway done wrapping.
-If you want the associate to wrap something, let them wrap. Too many times, people ask me to wrap something and then halfway through, take over and just start doing it themselves. Let go of being a control freak, please, and let us do it. If you’re worried about the quality of the wrapping, refer to point #1.
-When buying an item you want to give as a gift, ask yourself: Would I wrap this in wrapping paper? If the answer is no, why ask us to do the same? As I’ve said, some stores are gift stores and are prepared for all your wrapping needs. My store has gift bags, we’ve got ribbon and tissue paper and wrapping paper. Far too often, people buy something that is shaped awkwardly or will not look good in wrapping paper, no matter who is wrapping, then ask for it to be wrapped. Coffee Mug? Gonna look weird. Stuffed Rabbit? Yup, not gonna look good. 2 foot by 1 foot Calender? I need to use eighty sheets of wrapping paper! If I suggest a gift bag with a nice tissue paper arrangement instead, please don’t look at me like I’ve suggested I want to eat your children.
-Please don’t be an ultra-perfectionist about wrapping things for a baby. I want it to look nice just as you do, but it’s a damn baby. They don’t know the difference if the corner isn’t folded in all the way or the top of the stuffed toy is poking out of the tissue paper.
-Don’t hover over the wrapper’s shoulder. That makes us worse at wrapping.
-And last, please don’t complain about the lack of selection in wrapping paper. We’re a bookstore, we’re going for plain and simple, looks nice on anything style paper.
There, now we can all exist happily in our wrapping services and needs. Thank you.
I did It! (I didn’t do it.)
Agus anois , Dubliners: When I told people I was reading Dubliners, their response usually amounted to something like this. “Oh yeah, stream of consciousness!”
Steam of what?
How did I miss this on the quiz!? Seriously! I never admitted I had no idea what it was, but I never learned this term. And if I did, I surely have forgotten.
Steam of Consciousness is a term used by William James in his text Principles of Psychology. In the literary world, it is a way of writing where characters feelings and thoughts are uninterrupted by dialogue or description. Along with Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf were early proponents of this style.
Oooooooooooh that’s how I missed it. I know nothing of psychology. And, I’ve never read anything from these authors. Unless you count reading the first page of Finnegan’s Wake. (And I don’t). So was I missing something huge? I began to worry that missing this key component of Joyce’s writing would hinder my reading.
Well, long story short, it didn’t. But the question remains: did I, a lover of modern fiction like Dubliners?
It’s not my new favorite book and I didn’t absolutely love it. It’s not something I’ll reread year after year and frankly, I think having just visiting the city the book is about helped as well.
Dubliners is a collection of short stories written between 1905 and 1914 by Joyce mostly outside of Dublin. According to the book’s introduction, “Joyce lived in voluntary exile from Ireland, although Irish life continued to provide the raw material for his writing…Joyce and [his wife] Nora moved to Zurich, and at the end of World War I they settled in Paris…” It is interesting and slightly dismaying that Joyce wrote most of the story elsewhere: for something so tied to a particular place and for a man so celebrated in Ireland, it seems wrong that he wasn’t living right next to the Liffey, toiling away on his draft day by day. Dubliners feels like that favorite album from your favorite band that also happens to be the album that they fought about most, only speaking to each other through their agents and forcing the producer to work three weeks straight because no one wanted to be in the studio together to record. It somehow feels wrong to have such a strong connection to something that wasn’t created the way you would think.
But that’s okay, because Dubliners is certainly a strong portrait not only of the city but of the people and of the country, despite Joyce’s rocky relationship with the emerald Isle.
According to John Banville’s introduction of the book, Joyce initially intended Dubliners “to be his revenge upon a city and a people he considered to have betrayed him in a multiplicity of ways.” How could this be? For a text that is so tied to a city and a country’s identity, how can it be that it was intended as a slight? That deep down, Joyce was angry with his first home? It can’t, is the short answer, for Joyce really did want the book to be a portrait of his home, both good and bad. Banville catches this as well, writing “The fact is that in Dubliners he was as anxious to present as complete and accurate a portrait of his native city as he would be again… in Ulysses”. So Joyce didn’t hate Dublin and the stories here really do present the city and its people well, but why has it remained a classic for so long?
OH GOD JAMES JOYCE LOOKED AT A MEDUSA AND TURNED TO STONE oh wait. No, that’s just the dedicated statue to the author in Dublin. Sorry everyone- sorry! My mistake. No Medusas. Sorry. Sorry.
What made Dubliners stand out to me wasn’t that it was written in stream of consciousness technique, but that it seemed very ahead of its time. Most, if not all of the stories lack any resolution, often leaving the reader to complete the picture themselves. For example, the story ‘Eveline’ ends with at the very moment a young girl makes a tough choice regarding her suitor. Another story, ‘The Boarding House’, ends much the same way, ending with “Then she remembered what she had been waiting for”; a sentence that feels more like a bridge to something else than an ending. ‘Counterparts’ seems to end with rising action, as we’ve followed a man’s day at work when Joyce takes us to his home and broken relationship with his son in last few paragraphs. Even the final story, ‘The Dead’ ends in a more contemplative mood than falling action of a climax.
Leaving the reader with no resolution is hardly a new technique these days, and while I did admire the way Joyce constructed his stories, I’m sure I was nowhere near as blown away as those who first read Dubliners.
Not that my modern bias could keep this from making these stories imprint themselves on me. I studied Theatre and History in school so believe me when I say that I am fully qualified to pretend I am in a different time period, but I know shouldn’t set myself in such a differ place when reading fiction for pleasure. I’m not studying Joyce for a role or researching Dublin at the turn of the century; if anything, both disciplines taught me assessing something critically should be done with my own eye, modern bias or not.
So all in all, even though I loved this aspect of the book, I wasn’t blown away by the fact that these stories had no resolution. How could I? I can think of many television shows with a final episode that left us to paint the rest of the picture (Frasier, Futurama, Scrubs, Seinfeld to name a few) and a few movies as well (the most recent in my mind being Inception). But even though this didn’t elevate these stories to the realm of unforgettable for me, it did make them stand out. I enjoyed that they had little to no resolution, that Joyce left the fate of his characters in my hands after the final sentence. And as much as this is done in many forms of print and media, Joyce was employing this technique in a time when others weren’t.
Illustration of Joyce and Dublin by Chip Zdarsky from slate.com. Notice how Joyce’s eyes are so uninterrupted by extra descriptors that they blend in with the background.
As much as Joyce was using both this and the stream of consciousness technique, I don’t think he was doing it for the sake of doing it. Joyce paints a wonderful literary picture of Dublin in a time of much uneasiness for the Irish people. With the famine only fifty years behind, a blight so terrible it killed almost as many as it forced to leave the country in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere, and the rumblings of a revolution only a few years away, the people of Dublin had little time for interruptions of emotion nad resolutions in their lives. Joyce captures something I could see in the people of Ireland; a sense of immense pride in who they are and where they come from, but a great question mark at who they will be.
For so much of Ireland’s history, the people of the Isle held on to a strong national identity with no real knowledge of the future. The civil war that followed the Revolution of 1921 is proof of this, as the people knew what they wanted but could not agree on where the country should go after the Revolution Succeeded. Let me note, of course, that this is not a bad trait and I of course do not mean to infer that no one in the country of Ireland has any plans for their future. To be fair, often the people of Ireland had little to no options as to where they could go; they were fighting so hard to stay in the present that they never gave a thought to what the future could hold.
The characters in Joyce’s novel strongly embody this feeling. They know much about themselves, who they are and how they feel about the world around them (these thoughts and feelings being expressed without interruption from dialogue or description, remember) but lack a resolution when it comes to where they are going. Joyce, despite his time away from Ireland in the early twentieth century, had this same feeling in his blood. He carried this with him and recognized it. He recognized that it was part of not only being Irish, but being a Dubliner. The short stories in Dubliners are so strongly tied to the city and its people because Joyce was, no matter where he was.
Maybe that’s why Dubliners had succeeded as such a classic all these years. Perhaps not as famous as Ulyssess and not as infamous as Finnegan’s Wake (‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’ being the first line of that text, mind you) but still a strong work on its own, Dubliners captures the true essence of Dublin and the people that call the city home. Not only that, but it captures the feeling of the whole country. It doesn’t do this with a grand, sweeping narrative or a hero’s journey through the lands; it accomplishes this with the often multi-layered and frustrating lives of the people of the city.
Believe me when I tell you, having experienced Ireland, it would be so easy to capture the country in a grand narrative. There is so much history and so many beautiful things across the country that a writer of Joyce’s skill could easily write the seminal national text of Ireland using the Isle in its entirety. But much like Ireland, there is so much more than what you see in front of you. I liked Dubliners because it felt like a piece of history as well as a work of art. It was more special for me because I started reading it in Dublin; because I finished it fresh from a trip to Dublin. I felt like I was experiencing an extreme fast-forward of Joyce’s stories and that I, too, was another piece of the story left unresolved. The stories in Dubliners don’t need a resolution because the characters, much like the real people of the city in that time, had no time to worry so far ahead or to expect a resolution. That was something I could really see and that I really loved.
I did like Dubliners much more than I thought I would. It was a bit slow for me personally, not because the book is paced badly but because I prefer a story that moves very quickly and throws many surprises my way, but Dubliners was a great change of pace. It was another piece of my trip to Ireland that I’ll always remember and I certainly am glad I read it. It is a great group of short stories that really gives the reader a clear picture of Dublin in the early 1900s. As for me, seeing Dublin in the early 2010’s, I’ll remain a small part of the unresolved story of a wonderful city in an amazing country.
Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle posing with the book.
Unrelated book thought: March Madness is upon us! I always love the Tournament and despite my bracket getting nice and busted when Iowa State lost, there have been a good amount of great games. I am a Syracuse fan, having grown up in Central New York, and without them in the tournament things aren’t as much fun, but I do love a good College Basketball game. The end of March Madness also marks a sports void for me. I’m a big Football (both college and pro) and College Basketball fan and don’t care for Baseball or Hockey. I like NBA highlights but never really watch a game; maybe the fourth quarter of the finals now and then, but not much else.
I’m soaking up the basketball while I can because after April, it’s a sports drought until the end of August when College Football starts up. I’ll watch the first round of the NFL draft for fun, but until then I can’t wait until the football rains come.
Yup, that’s me.
The Official Whale and the Petunias Wedding Literature Game Answers!:
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Terry Pratchett
- Douglas Adams
- Christopher Moore
- Haruki Murakami
- Neil Gaiman
- Tom Robbins
- Joseph Heller
How many did you get right? If you got all 8, you’ll receive an official “Whale and the Petunias Button! (Button not included.)©”
Next time, on The Whale and the Petunias: I take a look at B. Catling’s The Vorrh, which you might not have heard of because it hasn’t been published yet. Can I time travel? Only Sci-Fi/Fantasy Month knows!