rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Writing a review of something by James Joyce means that I am required by law to link you to this awesome synopsis of Finnegans Wake (warning: TV Tropes).

Now that we have that out of the way:

this collection of short stories is in perfectly plain language, being early Joyce; I am informed there are a couple of pieces here that are run-ups for portions of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But mostly it's what it says on the tin, it's about Dubliners, people who live in Dublin, many different sorts of people.

I suspect that there are ways in which I can't appreciate how good this book is because too much of it has been internalized and is now just The Way People Write. It certainly does not feel nearly a hundred years old; any of these stories could appear in a modern literary magazine tomorrow and not appear dated. That is rare. There is not much in the way of plot here, in a conventional sense. These are stories of the form I associate with Chekhov, the seemingly motionless snapshot of people at a specific moment, doing specific things, which turns out to be a deep portrait of these people at a time when something vast is changing in or around them.

Therefore these are stories in which about ninety percent of the heavy lifting is going on under the surface, so I can tell you that there is a story about a boy who's just had a priest he knows die, and a story about the people who come in and out of a politician's headquarters in the process of canvassing, and really it tells you nothing at all about the pure sexual confusion and terror that hangs over the first story or the delicately ironic balancing of patriotic emotion, pragmatism, and alcohol in the second. There's an active living underlayer to everything in this book which makes summary a mockery. There are things going on here I am entirely sure I don't understand, possibly because of lack of cultural context on occasion, but I can still tell they are there if not what they are.

So I will cheerfully admit this is the great masterpiece all the critics say it is, especially 'The Dead', which I had read before at an age when it went so far over my head it probably hit the wheel of the zodiac, and which I had not expected to have so much merriment in it. (That's the one where there is a party, and a man who discovers he does not know what may be a huge and significant thing about his wife's emotional life, not that that is an adequate summing-up.)

It is however an odd experience for me as a reader who is also a writer, because it is that rare bird, a masterpiece from which I have no desire to steal any particular mode or bit of technique whatsoever, because it is not what I am trying to do. It is so incredibly not what I am trying to do that I am free to admire it purely and without the usual degree of a certain direction of studiousness, and the absence of that is like repeatedly missing a stair. Very unaccustomed mode of thinking. Now, Ulysses I will rob blind, if I think I can get away with it. This, no. It's like seeing a hawk in the wild or something, a beautiful experience that gives me no impetus at all to try to make a hawk myself. Whereas the phoenix that is Ulysses, you damn bet I'm out there setting feathers on fire.


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