The Irish novelist/poet James Joyce (1882-1941) is considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Joyce is nearly synonymous with avant-garde modernism and his use of stream of consciousness technique can lay some claim to revolutionizing the novel. Many consider his novel Ulysses (1922) the masterwork of the modernist movement (Modern Library ranked Ulysses first on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century). My simple mind considers it clever, groundbreaking in style (for better or worse) and occasionally insightful. However, it can be a painful experience to read; a paean to the modernistic penchant for ‘art’ for arts sake, where deconstructing coherence seems to be an end in itself. Despite my misgivings on Ulysses, I do think his semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is an excellent work. While it presents an early version of his eventual style, taken to the extreme in Ulysses, here it remains subservient to the content and theme of the work itself (as it should). Dubliners, reviewed here, represents even earlier work of Joyce. While it still is clearly stamped with the ‘Joyce’ style, it provides a more evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) break from the past while providing substance and a thought provoking reading experience.
Dubliners, first published in 1914, is a collection of 15 short stories. The stories are more or less unassociated, though together paint a realistic and often grim picture of early twentieth century life for those in the Dublin middle class. Joyce is a master at details, providing the reader an intricate window into the Dublin that his characters occupy. His writing in Dubliners does not provide dynamic dramaticism, instead opting for the mood, characters and setting to interest the reader, drawing their own conclusions around the content of each story. The pessimism and negativism do not paint a pretty picture, with self-alienation dominating Joyce’s view of the human character and emptiness/loneliness being the natural state of the human condition.
Let’s look at some examples to highlight this pervasive darkness in Dubliners. In Araby, Joyce has the narrator end the story with:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
In A Little Cloud, the main character finds:
A dull resentment against his life awoke within him.
In A Painful Case, one of my favorites from this set of short stories, Joyce puts us inside of Mr. Duffy’s head, as his relationship with Mrs Sinico is reaching its peak:
…he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said, we are our own.
Duffy ends contact with Sinico. Later, when he finds out she has died, he thinks:
Now that she was gone he understood how lonely her life must have been, sitting night after night alone in that room. His life would be lonely too until he, too, died, ceased to exist, became a memory — if anyone remembered him…He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast…He felt that he was alone.
Dead is the concluding story in Dubliners, and Joyce tries to inject some optimism, though quickly falling back into negativism with a concern that I find perfectly apt for today.
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 skeptical 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.
Joyce does provide good advice for those who, like him, seem to approach life as a constant struggle with their inner self, having Gabriel remark in Dead:
…there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of absent faces that we miss here to-night. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and loving affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.
The collection as a whole resonates with a gritty realism; thoughtful and introspective in nature leading to an intellectual end where the sum is greater than the sum of its parts. While many of the individual stories do not resonate with me, and though I do not share Joyce’s pessimistic disposition on the point of our being, Dubliners as a whole deserves its classic status and remains with you long after finishing it.
This edition from Limited Editions Club (LEC) is wonderfully done. The classical design of the binding is stunning, and quite apropos as a reflection of Ireland, though interestingly conservative compared to the break with classicism that Joyce represents. As with almost all Benjamin Shiff designed LEC’s, the paper and type is nearly perfect, a tactile tour-de-force. The photogravures by the Irish artist Robert Ballagh are a perfect match for the gritty, introspective and often lonely realism that the stories reflect. The introduction by Thomas Flanagan, an academic specialist in Irish literature, is enlightening concerning Joyce and the Dublin of his time; being especially insightful concerning the “moral and psychological” paralysis that Joyce laments.
About the Edition
- Designed by Benjamin Shiff
- Photogravures by Robert Ballagh
- Introduction by Thomas Flanagan
- Text set in 14 point English Monotype Scotch by Dan Carr and Julia Ferrarie at Golgonooza Letter Foundry in Ashuelot, New Hampshire
- Text printed on moldmade paper both by Wild Carrot Letterpress and Heritage Printers
- Five of the photogravure plates were made by Jon Goodman, with one plate made by Paul Taylor at his shop in Providence, Rhode Island
- The plates were printed by Robert Townsend, Greta Lintvedt and Peter Pettengill on handmade paper from Cartiere Enrico Magnani
- Book was hand-sewn and bound at the Jovonis Bookbindery in West Springfield, Massuchusetts
- Cover is dark green Nigerian Oasis goatskin for the spine, and Irish handkerchief linen over the boards
- Slipcase made by hand of Ultra-Suede and Italian book cloth
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