So, before I start this review, I have a confession to make: this book may or may not have been written by James Joyce or certainly, the version that I acquired from the library may have been altered slightly by a very nice lady called Clare West, who may or may not have made it easier to read.
I mean, I am sure that it is based on James Joyce’s original narrative and it was literary to a point but it was readily accessible, enjoyable even and this makes me suspicious about its origin. I’m not trying to say that literature should be difficult to read, just maybe marginally more challenging, where this was not.
So, the question is am I reading pure Joyce or diluted-to-taste Joyce?
Either way, it needed mentioning for transparency. I would hate you to think that I am hoodwinking you at all. So, I’m not sure how totally true to Joyce’s Dubliners the book I read is. I would say that it has probably been vastly adapted as, having read Joyce previously and found it a bit of a chore, this collection of short stories was one that I whizzed through and this was highly unexpected.
Not so much stories as glimpses into the characters who inhabit Dublin in the early 1900s, Joyce’s book reads like you were wandering the streets and peering into the windows of the houses and restaurants you are passing, or the couples passing you by, and having a small nugget of their personality and story revealed to you. Most of these stories show the limitations that people live with: their doubts, their aspirations, their money, their opportunities, their social sphere, their gender. There are also the perceived constraints that are present from others in their expectations.
My favourite story was one called Clay which was about a lady called Maria who has four items placed in front of her and she has to pick one of them whilst blindfolded. Each item has a different meaning and each item will tell the picker something about their future prospects. Maria chooses clay which unfortunately means death but before she can see what she’s picked, she is told a mistake has been made and she is presented with something else.
What I liked about this story is the hint of bygone times in the superstitions that still permeated life at that time and were still given credence, as shown in the removal of the offending item chosen. I also liked the fact that they chose to shield her because she is likeable and kind and presenting her with a fortune which was less than cheerful was not what they were aiming for in playing the game: they wanted to make her happy with a fun activity and share that pleasure with her, not present her with bad news.
The other story that stood out for me is called A Little Cloud about a young married man called Chandler who meets with an old friend, Gallaher who is a journalist in London, single and living a much freer life than Chandler is. Little Chandler, as he is known to the journalist, returns home to his wife and young baby and his wife hands him the baby as she has to pop out for provisions. Mulling over his evening, he feels the difference between the life he is living and its perceived narrowness and Gallaher’s life with its loose responsibilities and lack of dependencies. When the baby, previously settled and sleeping, starts to cry, he shouts at it, causing more upset and, of course, his wife arrives shortly after to find a flustered and guilty-looking husband and a screaming child. This adds to the sense of malaise in what should be an idealised family scene, the wife immediately taking the baby from Little Chandler’s arms with disapproval and reproach in her manner.
I like these vignettes of characters and I like the way that they are presented to us within the confines of every day life so that they are real; even though they are imagined by Joyce, you get a sense that he has seen characters like these in his dealings through his own life as they are solidly realised.
And so, after waxing lyrical about what could be diluted Joyce, do I read the real thing now? Proverbially, go for the hard stuff? Or do I leave my perception of an author hitherto blackened in my mind by previous readings and keep him on his pedestal, lit by a golden shaft of light, radiating warmth?
I am stumped but may just have to take the plunge and revisit him again. I am hoping that with my knowledge of the stories so vivid, that I can savour the literariness of Joyce’s work, revel in his manipulation of language for which he was so renowned and be awed rather than bored with his storytelling. But part of me wants to leave well alone.
I’ll keep you posted.