Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Book Review – Dubliners by James Joyce

The blurb for Dubliners describes these short stories as “candid, controversial and often disturbing.” Well maybe... that might have been true in Ireland before the First World War when these stories were written. But by modern standards this blurb is, shall we say, highly misleading.

In many ways these are not really stories at all. Not in the conventional sense of having anything as extravagant as a plot; you know, beginning, middle and end and all that paraphernalia. Really they are snapshots of life in Dublin. Though there is nothing necessarily wrong with that; why should every work of fiction follow that boring old convention?

The first group of stories are shorter and less satisfying. The later stories are longer and more interesting. Whether this is because they are in some kind of chronological order or Joyce was not so good at the very short short story form is unclear. There are no dates given for individual stories.

For me the most interesting story was Ivy Day in the Committee Room. A description of election canvassers returning at the end of the day and waiting to be paid. The cynicism was quite amusing.

Also of interest was A Mother. A story of someone protecting her daughter from being cheated by some concert promoters.

The story Grace somehow does not appear to end. You are just left there not knowing the outcome. As if one or more scenes for the story are missing or Joyce just could not be bothered to finish it off.

I can see why The Dead was made into a film. The fact that it is by far the longest story in the book is only a minor part of the explanation. More important is that it is the most conventional story in the collection. Also it inhabits the well-to-do world of balls and pretty dresses. It's not a bad story and can easily be turned into mush by any film producer. Ivy Day or A Mother would have made a better film.

The truth is, while these stories are of some interest, Joyce did not spring into the world as a fully formed or developed writer. If it was not for his later work I guess these stories would have been long forgotten. So: there might be hope for the rest of us.

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