In his upcoming essay collection, Multiple Joyce, David Collard describes Dubliners as ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. It is the only book by James Joyce that I have read. This was many years ago and I seemed to remember I was not impressed, finding too many of the characters irritatingly vulgar and vexing. However, with such a recommendation from a writer whose opinion I rate, I decided to give the book a reread. Perhaps, I hoped, with my added life experience and wider literary knowledge I could be more appreciative.
The collection contains fifteen short stories of varying length. Each has a plot of sorts but this is secondary to the portrayal of characters and the lives they lead in their particular time and place. There are boys and men seeking an escape from the repetitive boredom of their everyday existences. Where women feature, many are depicted as downtrodden, having used their wiles to ensnare and now having to deal with the aftermath. Marriages are rarely happy affairs. Drunkenness is common. Resentments fester.
Even the better behaved men are portrayed as selfish, often foolishly jealous. They come across as stunted emotionally, lacking empathy due to ego. Their struggle to control desires and concerns is well developed but did not prompt sympathy.
I was disturbed by the violence against children, although understand this was commonly accepted at the time in which the stories are set. Those suffering poverty, who spend what money they have drinking with friends while their families go hungry, may be realistic but such behaviour is still frustrating. Descriptions were unpleasant – not so much the grime and odours but the images offered of moist mouths and propensity for spitting.
Of course, I can recognise the quality of the writing, although the shorter stories worked better for me, some of the longer ones dragging on with their repetition. I do not question that the characters could be representative of Dublin residents when Joyce lived there – although this does offer some explanation as to why ‘the Irish’ were so widely disdained elsewhere.
My reaction to this work had me questioning what makes literature impressive. Readers’ opinions will always be subjective but I remain perplexed by the esteem in which Joyce is held. However clever a piece of writing, there must be more to engage the reader. Sadly, once again, the stories in Dubliners did not impress me.
I will be reviewing David Collard’s essay collection in which he shares his views on Joyce’s writing and legacy. While this amused and often resonated, making me rethink my views on Joyce and his enthusiasts, it appears I remain a ‘philistine’ when it comes to the supposedly great man’s work.
My copy of this book was published in 1973 by Penguin Modern Classics.