17 October 2011

Joyce's Dubliners

I just finished reading James Joyce's Dubliners, a collection of short stories (of sorts). Here is my provisional evaluation.

With only two exceptions ("A Painful Case" and "The Dead"), the selections in Dubliners are vignettes. They happen almost in real time and cover only a day or less in the life of the characters. There seems to be a (perhaps unconscious) link to Wagner, whose operas drag so much as to be nearly immobile. Theatre in general and especially opera in particular compress time and feelings. An aria lasting 3 to 5 minutes may compress years of longing of a character and do so to great effect. In Wagner, what takes 5 minutes to say or do occupies 20 minutes of music (which is the exact backward of drama). That is why many people just stay away from Wagner's operas, while still enjoying his orchestral works. In Joyce's stories you have the same inaction. The author succeeded in what he set out to do: show the paralysis that characterized the life in Dublin at the time.

As vignettes, the selections simply end with no resolution. Again, the author is taking pains to show that no one ever achieves his or her dreams and longings. But in most of the vignettes, that means that the characters come to no realization of any kind, and therefore to no growth or turning point which has any chance of liberating them.

"A Painful Case" qualifies as a story, as there is the passage of several months. However the main character learns nothing from the death of his lady friend. "The Dead" is very much the best story in the book. It takes place over less than 24 hours, but there is still action and movement lacking in the others. There is a definite resolution in which the main character learns something entirely new about himself and his wife.

In sum, the pieces are highly effective in accomplishing what the author set out to do. However it required all those vignettes in order to produce one bona fida story. This may show that it is extremely difficult to make a real story out of Joyce's procedure of holding up a mirror to people's lives and leaving it at that. The sad thing is that even today, 100 years later, writers are still caught in this trap, thinking that to be a story it has to focus on a single moment of a character's life. By now, the possibilities of this approach have been exhausted. We long for story.

My story-filled novel, Angela 1: Starting Over, is available at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html and of course as an ebook at your provider. Check it out!

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