Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Dead by James Joyce

You will be told that the short story depends on the pivotal event; ‘something happens as a result of which everything changes’ is the expression that has lodged in my memory and is therefore probably false but it’s near enough to the intent and to its contrary which is that the Irish short story is one in which nothing happens as a result of which nothing is changed. .  That’s true enough to be significantly false.  Just being written of in that close allusive familial world of the Irish who live in a small country that is constantly being written about draws  into the light familiar mysteries.

Now you’ve said it’.
'Amn’t I tellin’ ya’.

Have you noticed how many doors there are in the Morkan residence on Usher’s Quay?  I count 24. They are both portals and vistas.   We are invited to look from one room into the other.  Gabriel Conroy is both aloof and locked out and in the end when he crosses the river to his hotel there is an acceptance of the ultimate limen, that bourne from which no traveller returns.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

There are subtle changes in the authorial voice which drop like filters over a spotlight.  It is at first clichéd and familiar.  Individuality is smoothed out till what is left is a tone of voice, an intonation and an emphasis that is of the family and the class.

LILY, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet. ...... It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also......That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day.

This is your old comfortable aunt speaking.  The Morkan sisters Kate and Julia are firm women like herself.

They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers.
But Julia is failing a little:
Though she was stout in build and stood erect, her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. 

You can see that we are invited to complete the cliche - where she was or where she was going is just near enough to - she didn’t know whether she was coming or going; a usage that is often accompanied by a tug with both hands on the lapels of a cardigan. Psychic self-assembly how are you!

I was amused to read in the latest L.R.B. about cool Lady Chat who crept out of the abode of her husband in her sneakers that were soled with latex in its natural unvulcanised state. cf. Lady Chatterly’s Sneakers by David Trotter. Gabriel Conroy has got for his wife
galoshes which as may be expected have little downstram erotic benefit:

"And what are goloshes, Gabriel?"
"Goloshes, Julia!" exclaimed her sister "Goodness me, don't you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your... over your boots, Gretta, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Conroy. "Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the Continent."
"O, on the Continent," murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly.

There is more flourish in the introduction to Gabriel Conroy:

The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes.

He waits outside the door of the drawing room and also culturally outside:

He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.

He is also locked out from the cult of Gaelic culture represented by Miss Ivors looking as he does towards London and the continent for his culture and his absurd footware. He turns down Miss Ivors invitation to join her in a trip to the Aran Isles. Gretta his wife would like to go and later when he learns the reason she is crying he suspects that she wants to see the boy that loved her once again. But he is dead and it was just a song that he used to sing, The Lass of Aughrim

The precise and exact modulation of the diction from the clichéd familiar to the elevated is accomplished by 'that queer thing, genius’. Like a conductor Joyce evokes the grand themes not with the irruption of bad art but with an absorption into the music itself.

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.

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