Friday, 15 March 2013

Book Review: Dubliners by James Joyce

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141182458/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0141182458&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21
One of Ireland’s most famous and remarkable novelists and poets is James Joyce. He was an innovator of fiction writing and is known for his extensive as well as unprecedented use of stream of consciousness to tell his stories. Monumental works like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, that are considered unreadable by many (I haven’t tried yet, so I can’t tell from first-hand experience), have sprung from his mind, but James Joyce started his career as a fiction writer with a collection of fifteen short stories titled Dubliners that is much easier to understand and that anticipates the settings, characters and topics of his later novels without their complexity of style.

James Joyce was born in Rathgar (a suburb of Dublin), Ireland, in February 1882. He was an excellent student and studied English, French and Italian at the University College Dublin. The first novel that James Joyce attempted to publish in 1904 was ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ that would come out under the longer title Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man only years later, in 1916, after having been rewritten almost completely. Also in 1904 James Joyce eloped to the continent with Nora Barnacle. Over the coming decades the couple and their children lived in Trieste, then Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Italy, in Zurich, Switzerland, and in Paris, France. As early as in 1905 James Joyce first tried to bring out Dubliners, but had to face all kinds of disappointments from varying publishers until 1914, when the book was finally printed. Then the publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver discovered James Joyce and became his patron. From 1916 on the author was thus liberated from making his living as an English teacher and could fully concentrate on his writing. He finished his only play Exiles in 1918, wrote two volumes of poems, brought out Ulysses in 1922, and completed Finnegans Wake in 1939. James Joyce, who had been a heavy drinker like his father, died in Zurich, Switzerland, in January 1941 where he had retreated to escape another war. Several of his works have been published posthumously.

Dubliners comprises fifteen short stories that span all important stages of life making the bow from childhood over adolescence to adulthood and eventually death. At the same time the stories cover the course of a year starting in spring and ending in winter. This concept behind the stories serves as a narrative link between the otherwise unrelated episodes drawn from middle class life in Dublin around 1900. In Dubliners – like in most of his other works – James Joyce criticized the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Irish society, especially its conservative force that in his opinion prevented the country from progress, and the role of England as the ruling power who, according to the writer, intentionally kept Ireland a provincial and backward place. The Dubliners as described by James Joyce are constantly worried about sin and guilt or they are in unhappy and unsolvable marriages. They live in fear of failure and of the future. Consequently, all his protagonists are more or less passive sufferers who don’t have the courage to break free and advance although or because they have epiphanies about their lives. Hopelessness and a feeling of worthlessness are the constant companions of the Irish in James Joyces' stories. Also death embraces as well as penetrates the entire cycle of stories that starts with the laying-out of recently deceased Father Flynn in 'The Sisters' and ends with a longer narrative titled 'The Dead'.

When I read Dubliners for the first time a couple of years ago, I was very impressed by the psychological depth of the characters that James Joyce portrayed and by the true-life description of the circumstances engrossing them. The truth about standing in our own ways out of fear or out of habit is universal and valid up to this day although times have changed a lot during the past one hundred years. Death has a bit slipped out of our focus meanwhile, but it's as inevitable as ever and at one time or another everyone of us has to deal with the big questions connected to it.

To cut a long story short: I enjoyed reading Dubliners very much. For all those who shrink back from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and even Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (that I find quite an interesting and not too difficult read, by the way) it may be just the right book to get started on James Joyce.

8 comments:

  1. I've never read a James Joyce book.

    Thank you for enlightening me.

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  2. Great review! You are so right that Dubliners is a good gateway to Joyce. I've read it twice and enjoyed it both times.

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    1. I wish I had the time to re-read it, too. I particularly liked 'Eveline'. Thanks for your comment!

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  3. Great review! I hope you've given hesitant readers their in with James Joyce. Truly, If you were going to get started on Joyce, Dubliners is the way to go. It is definitely his most readable work. I've read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and even managed to make my way through Ulysses. This, I consider to be one of my great reading accomplishments, even though it took me a couple of tries to do it. I haven't worked up the literary strength to tackle Finegan's Wake yet.

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    1. Thanks for your positive feedback, Joanne Marie! In fact, with my reviews I hope to help people acquire a taste for good literature. I read the Artist as a Young Man first and liked it very much... Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are still waiting for their turn, but I must admit that I don't feel up to it, yet. So you're one step ahead ;)

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  4. Great review ! Thought I have not heard and read of James Joyce's book.

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    1. Well then, I was right to review this collection of short stories. Thanks for the praise.

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