I had no idea what I was getting into when I purchased this. I liked the look of the cover and the name and this is my main process for choosing a book. If the title intrigues me and the cover art attracts me, then I’m hooked. I also picked this up while on vacation in the Outerbanks at The Island Bookstore in Duck, NC. There is just something about a small bookstore with overflowing shelves and stacks of books on the floor with rickety stairs to an upper level. There is a primal need in me that only a crammed book store can fill. Forget the sand, sun and ocean. I care about a book shop.
I had never read any Joyce but I knew the name. The critical mistake I made when I began reading this book recently was thinking that it was a novel. It’s not. It’s a collection of short stories about what life is like in Dublin. It roughly follows the progression of life. The beginning chapter focuses on a small boy while the ending chapters focuses on two elderly sisters. All chapters involve a character in the next stage of life. Mostly the characters are poor or in the service industry, except for the last one. There was a chapter that I didn’t read because it was SO boring and un-understandable for me – it dealt with local Dublin politics and I barely understand US politics anymore. (My daughter gave me permission to skip it when she admitted it was the one chapters she had skipped.)
To review this book properly would require a review of each chapter and I won’t do that to you. Instead I will briefly review the two that stood out to me the most.
To understand this book, you have to understand that Joyce, although from Dublin, hated the city. He also didn’t care too much for the people in it. This is why the book has an air of contempt that is barely palpable under the surface. It is not until you take this fact into your psyche and absorb it that you truly get a sense of what he was trying to do.
A Little Cloud is the 8th story. The plot follows a man who longs to be a poet. He has large volumes of poetry and he composes poems in his mind throughout his days. He works at a newspaper and has for several years. It is drudgery for him, but he has a family now. The story opens with his excitement, as excited as a contemplative poet can get, about a meeting in the pub with an former coworker. This particular coworker has moved onto greener pastures in London and is just coming back for a short visit. Our protagonist meets his friend and envies his exuberance and his fancy free lifestyle. I can’t tell it as Joyce does, but the poignancy comes at the end, once he is home after his time with his jovial friend and he realizes that his choice to marry (a bitter, nasty woman) and have a son (apparently with colic) has become a prison. You realize, at the exact moment he does, that he will never become the poet he wants to be. Every choice we make impacts our lives.
The Dead is the last story. This story is also poignant in its own way but not as you expect. I suppose I expected a chapter entitled, “The Dead” and featuring two elderly ladies to be about, well, their deaths. But, alas, I had still not learned from my previous assumptions about Joyce. Beyond this, I found a speech tucked into the middle the most intriguing. As I’ve already stated, Joyce hated Dublin and he didn’t much like Ireland (at least that’s a prominent theory), so I found it interesting that in the last chapter he extols a virtue of Ireland that many of us in the modern world seem to have lost. I will quote some of his speech because of all the words in this book, this resonated with me the most.
“I feel more strongly with every recurring year that our country has no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so jealously as that of its hospitality. It is a tradition that is unique as far as my experience goes…among modern nations. Some would say, perhaps that with us it is rather a failing than anything to be boasted of. But granted even that, it is, to my mind, a princely failing, and one that I trust will long be cultivated among us. Of one thing, at least, I am sure. As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid…the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants is still among us.
A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated and hyper-educated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.”
He goes on, but it struck me that possibly it wasn’t Dublin Joyce hated as much as the loss of the past, his past. As I look at our world today, I think the words of Mr. Gabriel Conroy are as true as ever.
Joyce may have had instinct about where the world was headed without “humanity, hospitality and kindly humour” and as I read this speech, I couldn’t help but feel his sadness over our loss.