AND THE DEAD
In 1912 a Dublin printer, fearful of being taken to courtfor libel. blasphemy, or indecency, had 1000 copies of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners‘ destroyed before any had been sold. Not forthe first— orthe last—time. the young Joyce found it impossible to get his work into print. and found himself in conflict with the suffocating values of his Irish homeland.
Reading the stories now, one would find it difficult to see the logic of the printer‘s fears, but perhaps no more difficult than it would have been fora reader of 1912 to see in these stories the formation of the great experimental novelist of the 20th century. A critic of 1912 might have remarked the scrupulous eye for documenting banal reality—- ‘0ne evening as he was about to put a morsel of corned beef and cabbage into his mouth his hand stopped. His eyes fixed themselves on a paragraph in the evening paperwhich he had propped against the water-carafe. He replaced the morsel of food on his plate and read the paragraph attentively. (A Painful Case) —and the Chekhovian delight in irony and the drama of insignificance. but would hardly have anticipated the revolution that Joyce was to bring about in the whole form of the novel with ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man‘ a couple of years later, and then with ‘Ulysses‘ in 1922.
Joyce was an unlikely candidate for such a role. Ireland had little in the way of a tradition of the novel; and the Irish Renaissance of the preceding two decades, though fuelled by the political demands of the largely Catholic nationalist movement, had been led in its literary achievements by those self-proclaimed aristocrats of the Irish-Anglo ascendancy, Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory.
And yet it was Joyce who transformed the shape of English literature, and did so while refusing to take the route of George Bernard Shaw and others of absorption into the literary life of England. ForJoyce, English literature was a tradition, like himself, without a homeland, and he returned to it with the same insistence and in the same loving mockery with which his imagination returned always to Dublin, pitching the English language and the Irish people against each other. The first sentence of ‘The Dead‘, for instance, juxtaposes the expectations we have of the narrator‘s voice in a piece of English fiction — ‘Lily, the caretaker‘s daughter' —with the voice of the Dublin serving girl who tries to speak well: ‘was literally run off her feet.‘
As the final story of ‘The Dubliners‘, ‘The Dead' brings its tales of childhood and adolescence to confrontation with the responsibilities— and the evasions — of adulthood in an Ireland which is a place of living death.
Throughout the tale, Gabriel Conroy finds himself misunderstood, his deep desire to identify himself with the people around him, to move them to a
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pleasurable sense of communal identity, frustrated. The annual dance at his aunts' is the centrepiece of a social world that is at death's door, and that is, in any case, only an after echo of a European conception of social decorum that can barely maintain itself in raw Dublin. 0n the otherhand. he cannot rise to the challenge of the ‘new lreland‘ presented to him by Miss lvors, an Ireland focused on the rebirth of the ancientGaelictradilions ofthe country.
Only his wife remains as an icon of his lost ideals, butthe flame of his feeling for her is destroyed by the revelation of hersadness overthe death of a country boy who she had loved in heryouth. His aunts, teetering on the edge of death, whose world he cannot revitalise by the witty tributes of his speech, are balanced by his wife. lingering in memory over a death that undermines his sense of the vitality of theirmarriage.
At the story‘s conclusion, alone with his sleeping wife, he listens to the endless death of ‘the snow falling faintly through the universe. and faintly falling, like the descent oftheir last end, upon all the living and the dead.‘ The image bearsthe weightof obliteration, of oursense ofwinteras an image of a universe finally erased; but like all ofJoyce's final sentences. it is poised on irony, for under the snow the ‘living and the dead‘ become equal, a community at last, a fulfilmentthat the heat of social life, of love and lust. hadfailed to provide.
ln Gabriel Conroy Joyce drew a portrait of how he might have been himself had he not fought to maintain
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; dutiful to those around him to the point
of fault, self-critical and submissive. But in Gabriel is also a half-formed miniature for the great creation of Joyce‘s imagination a decade later. Leopold Bloom, the modern Ulysses. fatherfigure to Joyce‘s other ironic self-portrait as Stephen Dedalus. the lost artist ofthe modern city. Conroy submits, ‘his own identity fading out
i into the grey impalpable world‘. but we
suspectthat next morning he will. like Bloom, survive unbowed. a possibility
ofvital humanity and honesty in the midst of self-deception and decay.
his creative independence: a teacher. (calms Craig)
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GLASGOW, AYR THE COUNTRY
12The List 11 Dec 1987—7Jan 1988