Ireland has ever been a fount of short fiction. So many Irish writers have distinguished themselves in this form that their names make up a kind of who’s-who of writing sophistication and genius: John McGahern, Frank O’Connor, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, Seán Ó Faoláin, Julia Ó Faoláin, Eoin McNamee and many, many more.
James Joyce, of course, holds a kind of sway over all Irish literature written in English, mostly because of Ulysses. Whether the novel deserves that sway remains open to debate. What some readers consider a work of great genius is held by others to be one of profound linguistic nuttiness. It is revered particularly by professors. The conversation about that will go on for as long as literature exists, so there must be something indeed to Ulysses.
I’ve read it. But for me Joyce’s best book is Dubliners. It was controversial well before it was published, at least as far as Joyce and a number of publishers were concerned. The publishers were squeamish about producing the book because of its for-the-time racy scenes. Women’s underwear is described with lovely clarity. Women themselves are shown to have sexual longings. Profound sensuous desire is actually described. Homosexuality rears its head. Anti-Catholic opinions are voiced by some of the characters (and even, subtly, by the narrator himself.) The English occasionally are spoken of by the Irish characters with the ironic chagrin that comes of having been subjugated by a colonialist power for centuries.
It took Joyce years from the completion of the manuscript, and submission to fifteen publishers — a couple of them more than once — for the book finally to come out. The first publishing company, Grant Richards of London, accepted it right away in 1905, but then refused to publish the book if Joyce would not agree to certain changes. They wanted its morals sanitized. The same happened with another company, Maunsel & Roberts of Dublin, some years later. Joyce told Maunsel & Roberts that he would pay for the printing if he could obtain the so-far completed press sheets from them, and their response was to burn the press sheets. Joyce, thinking ahead, had kept a copy of the proofs, and was able to pass them on to the original company Grant Richards, who decided finally to risk publishing the salacious book in 1914. Joyce was thirty-two years old.
Each story in this book is a treasure in which the emotional difficulties of the characters are observed and written about with subtle kindness and well-considered sympathy. A young boy looks for a gift for a neighbor girl with whom he has fallen in love. An old priest dies. A maiden who has decided to immigrate with her betrothed to “Buenos Ayres” decides instead that she cannot leave her ailing, cantankerous father. A group of men seated at a fireplace mourn the death and consider the life of the great Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell.
The stories are for me must-reads, and I do read them, once a year.
In the final story, “The Dead”, Gabriel Conroy, who is a kind of spokesman for his family, attends an annual celebration on Christmas Eve, hosted by the Misses Morkan, two elderly sisters. The guests form a kind of mini-representation of middle-class Dublin society at the turn of the 20th century, with all their affections, difficulties and embarrassments. After the party, Gabriel learns from his wife Gretta that she was once in love with a boy named Michael Furey, who died from illness that was contracted while he was waiting, outside Gretta’s house in a fierce rainstorm, for some indication that she loved him. She has never forgiven herself for leaving poor Michael, whom she cared for profoundly, standing in the rain.
My favorite passage in English prose writing is made up of the last two paragraphs of “The Dead”. Here they are.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
If you want a primer on how to write fiction, please read Dubliners.
Terence Clarke’s New York stories are available as E-singles. They will be published as a book in 2016. His novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.