High up on the reading list* sent to me by the kindly grandees at the University of Birmingham’s English department in the summer of 1986, Dubliners has had to wait until summer 2013 to make the jump from shelf to bedside. It seems the spur of a trip to James Joyce’s homeland, three decades later, was needed to get to grips with these 15 short stories. Shame, because it means I have come so late to lines such as: ‘She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life.’ That masterly sentence is from The Mother, but the text is strewn with them as James Joyce describes characters at most stages of life, mostly trapped by their personalities or by the weight of circumstances in an early 20th century town in a country where God and good form matter: there are few authorial moral judgments, many loose ends and the realistic, quiet description of a series of defeats. In A Painful Case, a middle-aged man realises that his rejection of a lonely woman has led her to suicide, while in Araby, an adolescent boy is crushed by his failure to buy a trinket for the girl he adores. The Boarding House sees Mr Doran inveigled into a downwardly-mobile marriage through his own innocence. In short, it’s a beautiful collection, deceptively simple, dimly lit with failure and desperation – but rarely depressing. John Huston made a film of the last story, The Dead, although it is hard to see how celluloid could improve upon its final line: ‘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.’ His wife’s love is a prisoner to a consumptive boy from her past who showed his desire by standing outside her window in all weathers. Ah, poor Gabriel, there’s no competing with that sort of devotion.
* Henry James’ Washington Square was on the same reading list, but the old desiccant can wait till next year. Or the one after. Or until the snow stops faintly falling for good.