James Joyce is one of those writers that before I picked up one his books came with a certain reputation for not just being difficult but also being worshipped. A friend was telling me about ‘Bloom Day’ in Dublin where you can follow round Leopold as he does all the things he did in the 24 hours covered by the book. That sort of dedication after all these years is not the sort of thing that gets shown to just any writer.
But you have to be careful throwing the word ‘genius’ around because there would no doubt be plenty prepared to argue that if a book is almost totally inaccessible to the average reader (Ulysses) then where is the cleverness in that. Aside from that particular war of words a book like Dubliners is something that can be read by anyone and apart from a couple of references to Irish politics, particularly around the movement for independence, there are no major obstacles with this text.
This reminds you of a Robert Altman film with 15 stories going on but unlike something like Short Cuts there is no intention here to link the stories together. Like a patchwork of different streets and suburbs Dublin grows out of the stories of the people who live in it with the rich and the poor all represented here. The stories seem to get longer as you go through the book and ending with The Dead there is a picture completed at the end that makes you realise that whether rich or poor, religious or atheist, male or female and drunk and sober life is a struggle and what everyone wants is to find love and a safe harbour. the other attractive feature of the text is that Joyce never makes a judgement on the activities or beliefs of the characters but tells it straight handing the reader the chance to make their own judgements.
Is it well written?
It demands a fair bit of concentration to come to each chapter fresh and as a result Joyce has to pitch for your attention fifteen times. The fact he manages to do it and provoke different reactions in the reader answers the question about the success of the writing. Creative writing course tutors always talk about the importance of characters leading and shaping the story and here there are plenty of examples of how to get that process right.
Should it be read?
If Ulysses is too intimidating then this is a Joyce that can be picked up and read at leisure. Because of the nature of the separate self encapsulated chapters it makes ideal bedtime reading because you can knock off a chapter a night over a couple of weeks. I have not stumbled across anything mimicking this approach to describing a City and its people, there must be some, but for a first introduction to a living biography style it is something well worth coming into contact with.
Summary: the city of Dublin and its people come to life through these stories of rich and poor and happy and sad folk.
Version read – Penguin modern classics paperback