“When I first met Joyce, I didn't intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. But I do remember speaking about Joyce's heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That's what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn't go down that same road.”
That’s Samuel Beckett, the great playwright and novelist, talking about James Joyce. Since I adore Beckett (Coming soon: a post on Waiting for Godot) I’ve always wanted to read Joyce as I imagined both writers to have a similar voice (not so). I started, very ambitiously, with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but life intervened and I had to abandon it midway. I’ve had Ulysses on my TBR list for as long as I've had a TBR list. Sadly, I just never seem to get around to it. Part of the reason is that Joyce really doesn’t make it easy for the reader. So, I decided to take the safe route and test the waters with his short story collection Dubliners. These are the only short stories he wrote and a couple of them seem a bit too long to even qualify as short stories. I’m not going into word counts and such, if Joyce calls them short stories, I’ll take his word for it. But for this post, I'm going with two of his shorter and simpler stories.
A Little Cloud
Little Chandler (so called due to his ‘littleness’ of stature and manner) is due to meet his old friend Gallaher at a bar after work and this imminent meeting preoccupies him through the workday. Gallaher is the wild child who has made it big. Little Chandler’s life seems horribly bleak and mundane in ‘dirty Dublin’ compared to Gallaher’s glitzy life in the great cities of the world. Chandler tells himself that it isn’t too late for him. He could still become a celebrated poet if he put his mind to it.
I really liked this story. Joyce really captures the ‘littleness’ that Little Chandler feels and the increasing desperation with which he hangs onto his flimsy dream. The last scene is particularly sad, not because anything bad happens, but because Chandler’s little bubble bursts over a triviality, underlining the ordinariness of his life.
Maria works at the Dublin by Lamplight laundry. She has an evening off for Halloween and is excited about spending it with Joe whom she had nursed as a boy. On the way to Joe’s house she picks up some treats for Joe’s family, only to reach there and realise that a plum cake she had bought was either stolen or lost on the train ride.
Maria is another one of Joyce’s ‘little’ people. Ordinary, pitiable yet very likable. Maria, unlike Little Chandler, doesn’t dream of being anything more than what she already is. She has ungrudgingly accepted her lot in life and has neither complaints nor hopes. Yet, when she sings a song at the very end, she unwittingly pours all her longing into it. Maria is one of those characters who by their very simplicity affect you more than the shinier heroes.
Dubliners could actually be the title of any of Joyce’s books since they are all essentially about people living in Dublin. Joyce himself said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” If you read these short stories, you will see what he means about the universal contained in the particular. These characters are very conscious of themselves as Dubliners but they could actually inhabit any city and any time. You can read both stories here.
Short Stories on Wednesday is a weekly event hosted at http://breadcrumbreads.wordpress.com/.