18 November 2015

Review: The Dubliners by James Joyce

A Book I Didn’t Read in School

I loved reading even as a child, and I always read all the books I was supposed to read in school, so this challenge was always going to be difficult.

In my first year of university, I signed up to English 101, Twentieth Century Literature. But I missed the first week of classes, which was when we were supposed to have read the first assigned book: Dubliners, which is a short story collection based in Dublin, and is set in the early years of the twentieth century (which was why it was the first book on the class reading list).

I made it to the second lecture, and all I can remember is the lecturer talking about Ulysses—apparently some of the characters in The Dubliners also feature in Ulysses (which I also haven't read). The result was the lecture made no sense to me, and I wasn't at all motivated to rush out, buy and read Dubliners.

Anyway, now I have read The Dubliners, and all I can say is I didn’t miss much. I’ve never been a fan of cliffhanger endings, and it seemed like all these stories ended just when they were starting to get interesting. Too many of the stories didn’t have a satisfactory resolution, to my mind. And too many of them didn’t have happy endings (hey, I’m a romance reader. I like happy endings).

The writing was understandably dated, with lots of old-fashioned description, telling, and omniscient point of view. But there were pearls in there. This quote sums up how I saw Dubliners:
The poor lady sang Killarney in a bodiless gasping voice, with all the old-fashioned mannerisms of intonation and pronunciation which she believed lent elegance to her singing.
I can hear that voice. It’s like the overacted movies from the 1940’s, before method acting was discovered, and it’s like some writing from newer writers, who haven’t read enough modern writing to know they are writing in a distinctly twentieth century voice.

There were also excellent examples of subtext, of subtly implying what he didn’t want to show:
He had never been violent since the boys had grown up.
There was an underlying racism that we’ve hopefully grown out of:
Is it because he’s only a black?
There were excellent examples of showing class and accent through vocabulary choice and word order:
The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.
There was some writing which was strong in any time:
. . . too excited to be genuinely happy.
. . . laughing as if his heart would break.
And there was humour (although I’m not sure if this was intentional):
. . . a young man of about forty.
If only! (And this was written when Joyce was in his mid-twenties.)

No, I didn’t enjoy Dubliners in terms of the stories or the characters. But I can see why my university selected Joyce as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

This book counts towards my 2015 Reading Challenge as a book I was supposed to read in school but didn't.

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