31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 31: “The Dead” by James Joyce

May 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Dubliners

Dubliners_James_JoyceThe year 2014 marks the centenary of the publication of Dubliners, though the original manuscript was completed nine years earlier. In 1905, Joyce, only twenty-five years old, placed an early version of his story collection with an English publisher who subsequently withdrew his support for the book over fears that its frank depiction of sexuality could run afoul of obscenity laws. A few years later, an Irish publisher got as far as setting the plates for the book before pulling the plug, this time on the basis that Joyce’s use of real names for some of his characters might open the publisher up to libel suits. It was only in 1914 that the original English publisher, Grant Richards, decided to take a chance and release the book into the world. It has not been out of print since.

Terence Brown of Dublin’s Trinity College recounts this history in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dubliners. Brown goes on to identify the qualities that set Dubliners apart from English fiction that came before it, qualities that render it more of an experimental, groundbreaking work than might at first be apparent, particularly from a 21st-century perspective:

The publication of so complex and strategic a work as Dubliners in 1914 with its ostensible realism and complicated symbolist deployment of detail and structural pattern, whatever it may have done to aid the course of civilization in the author’s own country, most certainly marked a chapter in the history of modern prose fiction. For in Dubliners Joyce seized on certain late nineteenth-century developments in English prose fiction and made of them the instrument of an art that was both experimental and markedly enabling for his own development as a writer. And in so doing he demonstrated the literary significance of the short story as an artistic form of remarkable economy and charged implication.

The description of Dubliners as a work of “ostensible realism” is inspired: these are stories that traffic in the kind of rigorous specificity of names, locales, classes, and social habits that would appear, eight years later, fully exploded in Ulysses, though the stories in Joyce’s collection do not evince the surface chaos and unconventionality of that great novel. They are, however, charged with language that is heavily laden with symbolic intent and resonance.

The first character we are introduced to in “The Dead,” for example, is named Lily. She is, on the level of story, the daughter of the caretaker in the house of Miss Kate and Miss Julia, two upper-crust women who throw an annual party around New Year’s for select members of Dublin society. In a story called “The Dead,” however – a story that is all about rites of passage, mourning, and the grief and anguish of loss – the name Lily cannot help but call to mind the flowers traditionally arrayed at a funeral.

As Brown points out in his notes to the story, lilies are also associated with the Archangel Gabriel, who in the Bible is the angel who appears before Mary to announce to her that she has been chosen to be the virgin mother to the child Jesus. Is it little wonder, then, that the protagonist of “The Dead,” also named Gabriel, should work as a professor and a journalist, both professions that transform their practitioners into messengers of a sort?

Gabriel is also charged with acting as a messenger at Miss Kate and Miss Julia’s party: he has been instructed to deliver an address during dinner, something he frets over because he worries about speaking in elevated tones or making references his audience will not be sophisticated enough to understand: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.”

Gabriel’s intellectual snobbery, which has been fostered and encouraged, we are told, by his time spent travelling in Europe, is mirrored by the other guests, who engage in a dismissive discussion of the opera, during which one participant, Mr. Browne, proclaims that the great operas are no longer performed because there is no one of sufficient ability left to sing them. (Except, the company decides, for Caruso; they ironically name the most popular tenor of the time, someone even the hoi polloi would have heard of.)

This discussion is extended in Gabriel’s speech at the table, which connects the idea of a more recondite, bygone era to the notion of death and dying:

Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.

This valediction takes on ironic overtones late in the story, when it becomes clear that Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, is pining for an old flame, “a boy in the gasworks” by the name of Michael Furey. (Unsurprisingly, Gabriel’s rival for Gretta’s affection also has the name of an Archangel, in this case the one who in Catholic theology is considered the warrior.) If Gabriel is willing to remember the “great ones” of history – the stalwarts of literature, art, and music – whose memory “the world will not willingly let die,” this prospect becomes much more difficult when the deceased is his wife’s former lover, a labourer at that. Gabriel mentions Shakespeare as a simple reference his dinner audience might understand; it is no accident that the play he conjures up in his mind at one point in the story is Romeo and Juliet – that is, the quintessential story of doomed lovers.

The famous final lines of “The Dead” find Gabriel contemplating the falling snow, which is gently covering the land, including the cemetery where Michael Furey lies buried. “It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Here we come full circle to the notions of death implied in the story’s opening, only now the subject is entirely explicit, and laden with heavy melancholy. Without the reader even realizing it, Joyce has navigated his apparently plotless story through the kind of emotional manoeuvres that anticipate Modernism’s more fully realized stream-of-consciousness approach. In so doing, by straddling the old world and the new, Joyce is in fact enacting the very themes his story addresses. It is a virtuoso performance that remains, one hundred years later, one of the greatest short stories in the English language.

Not fully replicated in Canada

June 20, 2013 by · 4 Comments 

The values of international modernism were also not fully replicated in Canada: the Great War tended to stimulate Canadian nationalism in the arts in a way alien to most English and American modernist writers. For example, the corrosive alienation about patriotism and national feeling found in works like Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) or Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or in American expatriate Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) was not present to the same degree in the work of many of the young Canadian writers and artists who had come of age in the trenches during the Great War, men like poet John McCrae or man of culture Talbot Papineau (who both died during the Great War), artist A.Y. Jackson, or historian Harold Innis. Canadians had tended to emerge from the war with less of the wholesale cynicism of young British, French, and German and American veterans.

– Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press

Here’s a question, and it is meant in all sincerity (because I don’t have the answer): Has Canada ever experienced a period of literary modernism? We have our postmodern writers, clearly: Ondaatje, Coupland, Kroetsch, Heti, Lent. But has Canadian writing ever truly engaged with modernism?

Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers has modernest elements, as does the poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen, bill bissett, and bp Nichol. And in the visual arts we have mid-20th-century abstract expressionist painters such as Riopelle and Borduas.

But it’s probably safe to say that high modernism never caught on in Canada to the extent that it did in Europe or America. I wonder if Campbell is correct in her assessment that part of the reason for this is a less cynical, more patriotic demeanour among our cultural creators. And if this relative lack of cynicism was present in the past (compare, for example, Morley Callaghan’s novels and stories to those of his contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce), is the same true now?

31 Days of Stories turns five

April 30, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

It’s a bit daunting to think that this marks the fifth year I’ve launched into a month of short-story posts. The first, in 2008, was held in August, to coincide with the Canadian Notes & Queries/The New Quarterly Salon des Refusés of writers excluded from The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories.

The idea was straightforward: each day of the month, I would select and write about one short story. By month’s end, I would cover as close to thirty-one stories as possible. (One story per day is always the goal, but it’s also important to be realistic about time pressures, other commitments, etc.) In the initial conception, I wanted to focus on the breadth of short fiction since the turn of the 20th century; subsequent iterations of this project have reached back even further, and have covered stories from Canada, the United States, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Japan, Israel, and elsewhere.

If the idea was straightforward, it became clear quite quickly that the execution would be anything but. Selecting stories, reading (or rereading) them, and trying to come up with something somewhat cogent and (hopefully) engaging to say about them on a tight timeframe proved challenging, but people seemed to enjoy the results of this process. (Indeed, the annual 31 Days of Stories is one of the most trafficked sections of TSR.)

So, once again charging in where angels fear to tread, I’m going to pledge to post on one story per day during May 2012. (The story month moved from August to May in 2010 as a means of piggybacking on Dan Wickett’s annual online celebration.)

Inevitably, there will be some overlap in authors, because it’s my damn site, and I’m the one doing the choosing. Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and James Joyce, all 31 Days of Stories alumni, will no doubt be making repeat appearances over the coming weeks. (I’ve often thought I could devote the middle two weeks of this annual endeavour to each of the fifteen stories in Dubliners to obviate the need to choose from among them: they’re all that good.) But, we’ll try to mix it up a bit, to include a healthy serving of stories in translation, and hopefully to spotlight some surprising or overlooked stories that deserve a wider audience.

Things kick off tomorrow, and continue throughout the month. Join me?

(The Short Story Month banner is by designer Steven Seighman.)

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 12: “Grace” by James Joyce

May 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Dubliners

In Catholic theology, grace is a supernatural gift bestowed on believers by a benevolent God. It is through the operation of divine grace that believers are able to obtain eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. In less lofty circles, a “grace period” is given to debtors to allow them time to raise money to pay off their debts. Both meanings are germane to James Joyce’s comic tale.

The central figure in the story, Tom Kernan, is a drunkard who is discovered face down in a bar, having fallen down the stairs after an heroic session of binge drinking. A friend of his, Mr. Power, rescues Kernan from the local constable, who would likely have thrown him in jail for public drunkenness, whereupon Mr. Power sees the other man home and promises Kernan’s wife that he will “make a new man out of him.” In modern terms, this involves what is known as an intervention. Power and several friends descend on Kernan’s bedroom, where he is recuperating from the mother of all hangovers, and convince him to accompany them to church, where they will “wash the pot” – that is, go to confession.

They don’t have an easy time of it. Initially, Kernan refuses even to admit that his delicate condition has anything to do with his massive drinking, let alone that he might need any kind of redemption:

– Pain? Not much, answered Mr Kernan. But it’s so sickening. I feel as if I wanted to retch off.

– That’s the boose, said Mr Cunningham firmly.

– No, said Mr Kernan. I think I caught a cold on the car. There’s something that keeps coming into my throat, phlegm or –

– Mucus, said Mr M’Coy.

– It keeps coming like from down in my throat; sickening thing.

– Yes, yes, said Mr M’Coy, that’s the thorax.

Moreover, although Kernan, who was raised Protestant, converted to Catholicism when he married, he has never been devout, preferring instead to give “side-thrusts at” the faith. For his wife’s part, she is no more devout than her husband, but thinks that any means of reforming him must be a good thing: “Her faith was bounded by the kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.”

It quickly becomes clear that the men who want to convert Kernan are not entirely knowledgeable about the theology they are espousing. Their dialogue is a combination of misinterpreted Catholic dogma and outright mistakes. Mr. Cunningham insists that “The General of the Jesuits stands next to the Pope” at mass, which is untrue, and later suggests that Pope Leo XIII was best known for the motto “Lux upon Lux,” a garbled admixture of Latin and English. He follows this with the even more absurd “Crux upon Crux,” which he claims to have been the motto of Leo XIII’s predecessor, Pope Pius IX. The men go on to elucidate a confused exegesis of the doctrine of papal infallibility, which is based on the 1870 Vatican Council declaration that the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from his chair). In the men’s tortured perception, this concept becomes a tautology:

– There they were at it, all the cardinals and bishops and archbishops from all the ends of the earth and these two fighting dog and devil until at last the Pope himself stood up and declared infallibility a dogma of the Church ex cathedra.

The irony here is that although the men evince scant understanding of the concepts they are discussing, their faith is sincere, as is their desire to help Kernan.

Aside from their questionable theology lessons, the men are able to convince Kernan to accompany them to “wash the pot” in part by telling him that the priest who will be officiating is Father Purdon, “a man of the world like ourselves.” The turn of phrase is telling, for it is here that the twin meanings of the story’s title begin to show themselves. On one level, it is obvious that the men performing the intervention want Kernan to experience the divine grace that comes with confessing his sins and promising to reform his wayward behaviour. On another level, however, Joyce is conflating ideas of religion and commerce in a way that lends the meaning of his story a pervasive ambiguity.

As it turns out, when Kernan fell down the pub stairs, he was in the company of Mr. Harford, a moneylender. When Harford’s name comes up in Kernan’s room, it sends a chill of disquiet throughout the group:

He had begun life as an obscure financier by lending small sums of money to workmen at usurious interest. Later on he had become the partner of a very fat short gentleman, Mr Goldberg, of the Liffey Loan Bank. Though he had never embraced more than the Jewish ethical code his fellow-Catholics, whenever they had smarted in person or by proxy under his exactions, spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew and an illiterate and saw divine disapproval of usury made manifest through the person of his idiot son. At other times they remembered his good points.

The implication is that when Kernan met Harford in the bar, Kernan “remembered [Harford’s] good points”: he was there to borrow money. When he goes with Power, M’Coy, and Cunningham to the church, Kernan begins “to feel more at home” as he “recognise[s] familiar faces,” one of which belongs to Harford.

Then Father Purdon ascends the pulpit: “Father Purdon knelt down, turned towards the red speck of light and, covering his face with his hands, prayed.” Purdon is the name of the street in Dublin’s notorious red light district that once housed its brothels. By invoking this name and by having the priest kneel down facing “the red speck of light” that is suspended above the altar, Joyce is making an explicit connection between organized religion and prostitution (or – at the very least – commerce). That Purdon is “a man of the world” becomes clear in the Bible text he reads:

For the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. Wherefore make unto yourselves friends out of the mammon of iniquity so that when you die they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.

The text is from Luke 16, but Purdon alters it tellingly: the original translation reads, “… so that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.” The text is a part of the parable of the unjust steward, which famously ends “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Purdon’s alterations and elisions turn the Bible passage into something much more favourable toward commerce and the business of money than it actually is. As Hope Howell Hodgekins points out, “In Luke 16, Jesus’ irony verges upon cynicism.” In Purdon’s conception, however, “Jesus Christ was not a harsh taskmaster.” There is no conflict between worldliness and Godliness in Purdon’s eyes, and the priest concludes by aligning himself directly with mammon when he compares himself to an accountant.

Significantly, Joyce’s story ends before Kernan makes his confession. It is not certain whether his immortal soul has been saved, or whether he will return to the worldliness represented by Harford the moneylender. Of course, given Joyce’s critique of organized religion as epitomized in the person of Father Purdon, religion and mammon aren’t shown to be all that far removed in the first place.