Wednesday, March 19, 2008

DUBLINERS by James Joyce

The Book: James Joyce, DUBLINERS. Viking Press trade paperback reprint, 1967. Very good condition; cover is slightly scuffed, pages are age-yellowed.
First read: 1990 (best guess)
Owned since: 1990 (ditto)

I've mentioned before that I'm a literary pretender -- I never took an English class at the college level -- but I have read Joyce on my own. (Not Finnegan's Wake. I don't believe anyone who says they've read Finnegan's Wake on their own. Maybe someday I'll take a class.)

I didn't start with Dubliners, but I should have. It's far and away Joyce's most accessible work. The key to Joyce is that you need to read his work aloud, or listen to someone read it; that's the only way you can really appreciate the wordplay, or even understand what's supposed to be funny. Like Samuel Beckett (a Joyce disciple), Joyce is funny, even (or especially) when he's sad.

Dubliners is a series of vignettes about -- well -- Dubliners: young men, old maids, middle-aged businessmen, widowed mothers, married couples. The book's final story, "The Dead," is its best-known, and rightly so; the last paragraph of that story is one of the most beautiful ever written.

But my own favorite is "Clay." Maria, a useful and almost invisible older woman who cares for people in a workhouse, goes to a Halloween party at the home of a man named Joe. Maria had been Joe's nurse when he was a baby, and she is humble and grateful to be treated as a member of the family. The family plays a game in which a blindfolded person chooses something from a tray, which is supposed to tell their fate. Maria first chooses clay, symbolizing the earth to which she'll soon return; the family hides her choice from her, and fixes it so she chooses a prayerbook instead. They joke that she'll be going into a convent, and invite her to sing. She sings "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls," but forgets the second verse, and sings the first verse twice.

"Clay" is a masterpiece of showing rather than telling -- Maria, invisible, becomes visible to the people she's loved just as she's about to leave them, and the man she considered a son is overcome as he sees her whole for what may be the first time. In less than seven pages, Joyce gives us Maria's whole life, while hardly telling us anything.

Five Random Songs

"Seal Jubilee," Bat for Lashes. I am lucky to have friends who pay much more attention to the modern music scene than I do, and who are generous about sharing their discoveries; this was a gift. Bat for Lashes is the musical identity of Natasha Khan, who describes herself as a "singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist." Her website teeters on self-parody, but the music is lovely -- dreamy, echoing, ethereal.

"Horsing Around," Prefab Sprout. Ha - another gift from the same friend. Prefab Sprout was one of those ultra-intelligent British pop bands, in the tradition of The Blue Nile, The Style Council and Squeeze, which never quite made it in the United States. This CD, Steve McQueen, was recently remastered and reissued with a set of acoustic versions. This song is a bossa nova, with harmonies straight out of a 1950s cocktail lounge.

"Girl from the Wadi Hammamat," The Pogues. From Waiting for Herb, a record the band made without its longtime lead singer, Shane MacGowan. Without Shane they don't have the same edge, but I still like the album. They're playing tonight and tomorrow in Boston; obviously, I'm not going. Dammit.

"Outfit," Drive-By Truckers. Here's the beauty of the shuffle function: without it, it would never occur to me that the Drive-By Truckers are kind of the American Pogues. But they are, they're a punked-out version of a traditional music band, and they rock. This might be my favorite DBT song, a father's advice to his son: "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/Don't ever say your car is broke/Don't sing with a fake British accent/Don't act like your family's a joke..."

"All Things Must Pass," George Harrison. I bought this on iTunes the day it became available. On a bad day, I've put this song on "repeat," and listened to it five times in a row. The instrumental tracks on this song blow me away; Ringo's on drums, and he's never been better. In fact, I'm hitting repeat on this right now.

1 comment:

norby said...

Ah, the Drive-By Truckers. Outfit is great, no question, but I have a hard time picking a favorite song, there are so many I like.

Hell No, I Ain't Happy
Women Without Whiskey
Too Much Sex, Too Little Jesus
Wife Beater
Lookout Mountain

and many, many others.

They just beg you to sing along.