I’ve just finished reading Dubliners by James Joyce. When I picked up this collection of short stories, it was to discover for myself what the whole deal about Joyce really was. Alternatively, it was also because I thought reading short stories was taking the baby step to reading Ulysses. When I was reading the first story, The Sisters, I remember I was so excited to be at the precipice of a great literary uncovering. As I read the last line of The Sisters I wondered, “what the hell happened?” So, I said to myself I would read it again. Read it again, I did. I still didn’t get why that man would want to write it at all. Nothing of great consequence happened in the story. More than annoying me, this intrigued me. So, I read the story a third time. Oh yes, some patience I have. I finally concluded that this is all there was to it—a priest died, a boy was close to the priest, and the boy and his aunt went to his house give their condolences, and that was that. I told my friend that Joyce was an apathetic writer. He did not care if you didn’t read his work, he wouldn’t care if you do. It’s evident in the way he wrote. And this very fact made me continue reading the collection. To see where this man was going with all this. Also, because, it’s hugely fascinating to come across a writer who wrote for himself, for the pleasure of writing. No matter what he wrote.
I moved on from the first story and read the second one—An Encounter. Again, all I read was about two boys playing and bumping into an elderly man. Nothing of earth shattering consequence happening there as well. Like this, I went from one story to another, just reading about people and what they did on a mundane basis. It was not until I read Araby that I got the beauty of these stories. James Joyce just picked a pen and wrote about things he saw in Dublin, about the people he met, about the watch on the wall and the cane near the door. He wrote about the day in the life of a clerk and the bus ride home. He wrote about a young woman and her culinary skills; and he did so with onerous detail. You’d know what knife she used, what she thought when she cut a piece and how she walked back home with commonplace dreams.
In this collection, he wrote about trite events and quotidian occurrences. Most stories start nowhere and end nowhere. It’s like he walked quietly into a theatre, sneaked into where the reels were kept, and snipped off random parts of reels. Then he came home, made himself a cup of tea, and wrote what he saw in those reels. Then, he died. The theatre ceased to exist and a towering hotel is in its place. The film reels are gone. You have Dubliners, you read the snippets, but you don’t have the bigger picture.
As a writer, I find it difficult to write a post that has no end, or a post that has no implication of a continuing thought at least. I feel the need to tie it somewhere, to something – possibly a thought, a wish, a learning, or even a fact. But when I read Dubliners, I was liberated from that bondage; story after story I realised that there was no closure. So, when I did the reading, instead of concentrating on the bigger picture, I paid attention to the details. I paid attention to how he spoke of the people, their mannerisms, their daily challenges, and their unremarkable banter. I leafed through the pages and saw how the dust had gathered between the pages.
Today I finished reading the last short story or his novella, The Dead, and while I was at it I thought of the association I formed with Joyce. There comes a point where you can only read so much about people seated around a table. Specially when there is no intelligent talk. I wondered if this collection was the genius I thought it was. By now, Joyce had taught me to be patient. While I concentrated on the dust that had settled, I came across a passage he wrote in The Dead. In those few paragraphs, he spoke about the dreams of a husband to renew his relationship with his wife. When I read it, I could feel Gabriel’s (the husband’s) thoughts, and a rush of happiness swept over me. Within that hidden piece of text lay rapturous joy. At that moment, I realised why this book was important; because every time you read it, you’ll relate to something completely different depending on how your regular life is. You won’t have to step out of it to escape into someone else’s world. You can just read this and see whatever you want to see. What’s more, even if you don’t want to, Joyce won’t mind. He didn’t write it for you anyway.