Dubliners by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While not wanting to sound like I’m having a bromance with Dr Oliver Tearle of Interesting Literature, I must yet again give credit to his excellent site for bringing me back to one of the first books I ever read as a young adult; and one which changed my life in many ways. His recent short analyses (more summaries really) are tantalising tastes of the great Irishman’s work.
Joyce’s famous collection of short stories of Irish life enjoys great renown but, as I’ve found with many of the ‘classics’, renown is not enough to be certain a book is still worth reading in our post-modern world. As I return to many of these great books of my youth, I find that I’m often terribly disappointed. Age doesn’t always do favours. I was rather nervous about returning to ‘Dubliners’ then. Not only did the collection deeply affect me when I was young, but I carried that through to my own writing life – starting a good twenty years later. My own collection of short stories (‘The Old Man on the Beach‘) owes not its content but the spirit to Joyce’s work. Yet, I would have been unable to tell you even the briefest of summaries when I was writing my own – deliberately, as I didn’t want to plagiarise even the sentiments or style, let alone the content.
Within minutes of reading the first story though, I was back to being a young man again. The stories have lost none of their brilliance, their mystery or their power over both heart and mind. I would still be hard-pressed to tell you any significant details of the collection despite having finished it just hours ago. Somehow, Joyce just takes us into the lives of Irish folk, gives us a snapshot of their life, hints towards…something, approximating to a classic ‘beating the odds’ required by law of all stories, and finally leaving again without ever truly reaching a climax or resolution of anything at all. Analysing the stories is like trying to grasp water – no, oil – for something of their meaning ‘sticks’ to the hand, but not the whole. It can’t be done.
Which is just as Joyce would have liked it. His ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (I’m one of the few who have read and enjoyed that bizarre literary experiment) is an incredible novel which took 17 years to write and was intended as a puzzle he reputedly declared he wanted men to study for the rest of their lives. I can well believe it – it is typical Joyce. These short stories exude depth, but finding exactly what it is is all but impossible. What’s more certain is that they are things of beauty. Joyce knows precisely what words and phrases to use and how to suggest an atmosphere without spelling it out. He is both the epitome of what all writers should aspire to within their chosen spheres and styles – and our downfall if we try to attain such heights. With a Dickens or a Hardy, you can break their writing into ideas and methods. With Joyce you cannot. He defies explanation and is all the more marvellous for it.
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Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 2.9 million times.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.