Risen from The Dead: ‘Dubliners’ will always reveal something profound and essential and unrealised about the city and its people

Mark O'Connell  finds that James Joyce’s life and fictions are a palpable presence on the streets that inspired his short stories

On a bright and blustery morning in February, I stepped out of my front door and walked until I reached the north bank of the River Liffey, where I crossed a bridge and stopped in front of a dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island.

The house stood a little back from the street, as though in quiet reproach of its surroundings, the only Georgian redbrick in a row of humbler buildings facing the river; it was flanked squatly on one side by a small car-upholstery concern, and, on the other, by a large modern block of apartments. Printed on the fan window over the front door were the words “James Joyce House”, and then, directly beneath these, “The Dead”.

The house was unlit and unoccupied. I looked down over the railings into the basement entrance, where there lay a heap of discarded items: the carcass of what seemed to be an old wooden dresser, a sodden mattress, a few plastic bags bulging with rubbish. I removed my phone from my pocket and took some photographs, and as I did so, a group of middle-aged Scandinavian tourists ambled past. Two men at the rear of the group noticed me and, as is the way of tourists, stopped to look up at what I was photographing. “James Joyce’s house,” said one of them, pointing up toward the window and misreading what was written there. His friend made a guttural noise of mild interest, and they both continued down along the river in the direction of the Guinness brewery.

I briefly considered stopping them, to explain that this was not actually one of the 20 or so Dublin addresses Joyce had lived at, but the place in which he set “The Dead”, the greatest of his short stories, the story that closes Dubliners and that elevates the book to the level of the supreme artworks of the 20th century. This is the “dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island” where Gabriel Conroy’s elderly aunts Kate and Julia live, and in which they throw the party that provides the occasion for one of literature’s most powerfully sustained performances of narrative brilliance. Just behind that locked front door is where Gabriel stands in “a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase” at his wife, complacently admiring “the grace and mystery in her attitude” as she listens to another guest sing “The Lass of Aughrim”, unaware that she is thinking of a boy she once loved, a boy who died for his love of her before she ever knew her husband.

O’Connell Bridge in 1950 O’Connell Bridge in 1950 (Getty)

This week marks the centenary of the publication of Dubliners, a collection that Joyce wrote in his early twenties, and which writers of the short story form seem basically resigned to never surpassing. I’ve read it more often than I’ve read any other book and it never loses its capacity to draw me into its confined narrative spaces, with all their cruel precision and humane comedy, all their beauty and their bleakness, their terrible evocations of boredom and desperation and yearning and entrapment. And if you live in Dublin, if you are yourself a Dubliner, no matter how many times you read the book, it will always reveal something profound and essential and unrealised about the city and its people. Somehow or another, it will always hit you where you live.

The Dublin of Dubliners (as distinct from the more vibrant and various setting of Ulysses) is a claustrophobic place, a place of entrapment and congenital disappointment, filled with frustrated people living thwarted lives. It is in every sense a small city. There is a particular airlessness to the trio of childhood stories that open the collection, a thick fug of corruption that seems to suffocate the spaces in the city that the stories explore. “Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms,” the narrator of “Araby” tells us.

Everyone in Dubliners is thinking about a way out, if not actively pursuing one; everyone is dreaming of some better version of himself in some better place. The stories are filled with vague conjurings of such better places – the Wild West in “An Encounter”; the hazily evoked Orient in “Araby”; Buenos Aires in “Eveline”; London and Paris in “A Little Cloud” – but what seem like possibilities of escape always turn out to be passages to deeper entrapment. The boys in “An Encounter” skip school for the day, only to wind up being accosted in a field by a “queer old josser” who quizzes them about girlfriends before excusing himself momentarily, apparently to masturbate, and then returning to deliver an obsessional monologue on the pleasures of whipping young boys.

Grafton Street, Dublin c1880 Grafton Street, Dublin c1880 (Getty)

In “Eveline”, a young woman, trapped in miserable domesticity with her alcoholic father, is given an opportunity to flee for Argentina with a suitor, but then becomes overwhelmed by a desperate fear of drowning – in the ocean, in the uncertainty of his intentions, in the unknown depths of freedom itself.

In “A Little Cloud”, a legal clerk named Little Chandler goes to meet his old friend Gallagher, who years earlier left for London and a successful Fleet Street career; as he walks south across the city, he sees the streets and buildings through the borrowed perspective of a London cosmopolitan: “For the first time his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin.” He daydreams about making his name as a poet, specifically an Irish poet, although he has never gone so far as to write anything. “The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions.”

Joyce himself went away: he fled Dublin in 1904 with his lover Nora Barnacle, as he was beginning to write the stories that would become Dubliners. Almost all of his major work was written in other European cities (in Trieste, in Rome, in Zurich, in Paris), and all of it was about the one he was from, because if you wanted to succeed, you had to leave – especially if success meant writing about that place in a way it had not been written about before. Joyce’s preferred narrative, and the one that has become the official version, was the narrative of exile, the story of his flight from Dublin because it was too morally and intellectually restrictive an environment, that he could not pursue his work under the combined pressures of nationalism and Catholicism that bore down so heavily on the heads of Irish artists. “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight,” says Stephen Dedalus to a patriotic friend in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “You speak to me of nationality, language and religion. I will try to fly by those nets.”

One of Joyce's Dublin homes One of Joyce's Dublin homes (Corbis)

Every city is an artefact, an accumulation of historical residues, but this feels especially true of Dublin. In some odd but fundamental sense, it is not an Irish city. It was founded by Vikings in the 10th century, as an estuary base from which to run their bloody operation on this dark western edge of Europe. The street names in my neighbourhood – Viking Road, Sigurd Road, Ostman Place, Olaf Road, Norseman Road – are signposts to this past, but the most reliable reminder of Dublin’s Norse origins is the Viking Splash Tour, a fleet of large open-topped amphibious vehicles that ferry horned-helmeted tourists from one site of historical interest to the next, exhorting them to bellow genially at passing pedestrians. It’s strange to think of groups of Scandinavian visitors, like those I encountered outside 15 Usher’s Island, taking this tour and happily caricaturing the fearsomeness of their ancestors. History repeats itself, first as conquest, then as commerce.

The city that exists now, though, which in a physical sense is still recognisably the city in which Joyce’s characters live their lives, is inescapably an artefact of British empire. Almost all of our significant buildings – the Houses of Parliament, City Hall, the presidential residence, Trinity College, Dublin Castle, the major museums and theatres and hospitals and courthouses and hotels – were all built as part of a long-dismantled edifice of colonialism. Dublin is a repurposed city, in the way of all post-colonial capitals. It is haunted by the fact that we are going about our business in streets and buildings that were originally constructed for the purposes of our dispossession. Much of the north inner city, where I live, is characterised by an air of discontinued grandeur, as of a place that has not been able to keep itself in the style to which it was once accustomed. It is not quite that we are living in the ruins of the 18th century, but at certain times, in certain places, it can seem that way.

Perhaps this is purely idiosyncratic, but I find it impossible these days to read the story “After the Race” as anything other than a prophetic allegory of Dublin’s trajectory through the so-called Celtic Tiger boom years. It opens with a burst of energetic modernity, as a motor race illuminates the dark, broken labyrinth of the city’s streets. The protagonist of the story is a young man named Jimmy Doyle, whose father has made some money in the butchering business and sent him to study in Cambridge for a term “to see a little life”. Doyle has returned to Dublin to take part in the race, along with the coterie of cosmopolitan friends he has taken up with, all of  whom are vastly more wealthy than himself.

James Joyce’s desk James Joyce’s desk (AFP)

We see Dublin through a combination of Jimmy’s pride and Joyce’s irony. “That night the city wore the mask of a capital. The five young men strolled along Stephen’s Green in a faint cloud of aromatic smoke. They talked loudly and gaily and their cloaks dangled from their shoulders. The people made way for them.” There is a fancy dinner, and then drinks and a card game out in Dublin Bay, on a yacht owned by an American acquaintance of one of the group.

The glamour of the day, the proximity of all that suave old transatlantic money, goes to poor Jimmy’s head, and he drinks more than he should, and gambles far beyond his means. By dawn, he owes more money to his wealthy companions than he can calculate, and the effect of the booze is beginning to give way to a throbbing headache: “He knew that he would regret in the morning but at present he was glad of the rest, glad of the dark stupor that would cover his folly.” As the story ends, Jimmy is consciously coming into the patrimony of his Irishness: an unsettled debt and an outstanding hangover.

In an abstract way, all of this – the palpable presence of Joyce’s life and fictions, the ghostly register of recent misery – is legible as part of the endlessly accumulating document of the city. But I wonder what connects the modern Dublin – the Dublin I inhabit – with the place that Joyce wrote about at the turn of the last century. There is still poverty and entrapment and misery here, of course, as there are in all places, but perhaps they manifest themselves in different ways, and for different reasons.

The city that Joyce portrays in Dubliners has both receded into the distant past and remained insistently visible; Dublin, like all cities, is a sort of palimpsest, in which the past is always and everywhere legible beneath the surface of the present. Joyce’s writing adds a further layer, which for me is just as real, and as plainly visible, as the actual past.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Slate

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