I'm not sure whether there is more pressure on James Joyce for having written "one of the most important and revealing works by modernism's most innovative writer" or on me for reading it and deciphering just what it is about the story that makes it so. I'm talking about The Dead by James Joyce which is the first of this year's Melville House Art of the Novella books, which I am still getting on subscription. I'd read it many years ago but had mostly forgotten it, or maybe I only thought about reading it, started it, and then never finished it*. It's all a little hazy now. In any case there was a vague familiarity to the beginning anyway.
James Joyce is one of a handful of writers who I find intimidating to a point of sidestepping their work. It's a little silly really. But if there is a place to start with Joyce, I think this is it. While I am still pondering the story and the interpretations of "what is all means", it was a very satisfying reading experience. It is a mere 64 pages, which I split into two sittings, pencil and notebook in hand to keep it all straight. Is this what they mean by "close reading" when you break it all down into easily digestible pieces? I tried something like that. It was a less a reflection of content than simply keeping track of people and events.
In art there is something called gesture drawing where you quickly sketch a subject--letting it flow out of your pencil to try and capture the essence or movement. If there is something akin to it in writing about books--here is my attempt. Joyce's The Dead?
It's Christmas. Or at least holidaytime. The Missees Morkans are having their annual dance. Never has it fallen flat. They may be "Misses" but they are not youthful. They are, however, both quite musical. One giving musical lessons and the other singing in the choir. There is another Miss Morkan--Mary Jane, a niece who is a music teacher. Lily is the caretaker's daughter, just out of school, helping at the party. She's somewhat snappish when it comes to men.
Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta have arrived. He is their favorite nephew. The son of their dead elder sister who married T.J. Conroy. Ellen, the sister, had no musical talent. They say she had the brains of the family. After an illness where Gretta mostly took care of her, she has died. She was rather critical of her son's wife, Gretta.
Gabriel is a literary man. He writes a column for the Daily Express. Not really on the sly, but he's been 'found out' by a childhood friend and college classmate, Miss Ivors who "has words" with him at the party. He doesn't see his work for the paper as political, and the money isn't even all that great but he does like getting the books to review. She's planning on going to the western part of Ireland for her holidays--some sort of walking or cycling tour and invites him, but he already has plans to travel to the Continent.
So that's the setting of the scene. I've left out a few details like Freddy Malins who the Misses Morkan think will arrive drunk and be a nuisance, but when he does get there isn't too bad. They play music and dance. Gabriel gives a speech. It's all quite warm and fuzzy. Gabriel is quite happy with himself.
After the party they, Gabriel and Gretta, go to a hotel as the previous year there had been some difficulties getting home. He's in a rather amorous mood and is planning, thinking about an intimate moment with his wife. She, however, was touched somehow by the music. Something from her past, her youth, a previous love has come full force back to her.
It's this moment of revelation where he has an epiphany of sorts that comes as a total surprise to both the reader (especially the reader) and to Gabriel, too. This is the hinge of the story, from what I understand, that makes it so innovative.
And the "Dead"? At first I thought it referred to the dead elder sister, Gabriel's mother. But surely the dead is Gretta's first, and what it would appear most enduring, love. I'm sure this is a story that is full of meaning and various interpretations and likely every reader sees something different in it. The "epiphany" (or twist) I think has double meaning--for the reader it is that lightbulb moment where all the little things come together and we finally "see" just what Joyce is trying to tell us.
But it is a moment of epiphany for Gabriel, too. He sees his life is something of a sham. He had made a comment at the beginning of the evening to Lily (hence her snappish response) that didn't sit well with her, his boyhood friend calls him on his "Continental" aspirations (isn't traveling in Ireland and writing for Irish papers enough for him?), the speech he made and was so pleased about earlier leaves ashes in his mouth on reflection later. And the worst thing--his wife Gretta, whom he loves and was looking forward to sharing a night of intimacy has broken down in tears over a man long dead. It seems pretty devastating.
I thought this was a pretty amazing story and the more I think about it, the more I like it. How impressive that in so few pages an author can pack such a wallop and I know that another reading of it would help in peeling back the many layers of it. I have borrowed the film adapation by John Huston to watch this weekend and am curious how the actual visual production of it matches how I imagined it while reading. And it is a story I will definitely reread. It is one of the stories found in Dubliners, which makes me wonder how much more there is to appreciate in reading it as part of a greater whole?
My other novella selection this month is The Lesson of the Master by Henry James, which I hope to start this weekend.
*And indeed after locating by copy of Dubliners I find that to be just the case. I started reading the story but there is a post it note not many pages into the story, so it would appear that I abandoned it for some reason.