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Book Review: My Greatest Challenge This Summer, It Seems, Is Deciphering The Dubliners by James Joyce

The best way to read during the summer is indoors with the AC waaaay up,
so you can wrap yourself in blankets
          Which means, I suppose, that I'm having a nice, relaxing summer so far.  My only other challenges have consisted of soaking up sunburn and working as an intern at a writing class for little kids.  But reading The Dubliners, a famous collection of short stories set in Dublin, has proved harder than either of those.  To give you an idea of why, allow me to quote a few passages from the book:

          "'Some of these fenians and hillsiders are a bit too clever if you ask me,' said Mr. Henchy" (pg. 125).
          "'But I'm greatly afraid our friend is not nineteen carat.  Damn it, I can understand a fellow being hard up but what I can't understand is a fellow sponging'" (pg. 124).
          "'He takes th'upper hand of me whenever he sees I've a sup taken'" (120).
          "'Sure, amn't I never done at the drunken bowsy ever since he left school?'" (120).
         "'Hasn't the working-man...a better right than those shoneens that are always hat in hand before any fellow with a handle to his name....One man is a plain honest man with no hunker-sliding about him'" (121).
          "'That takes the solitary, unique, and if I may say so call it, recherche biscuit!'" (50).
          "'There's nothing to touch a good slavey,' he affirmed" (52).

          Do you see what I mean???  The book is set in Ireland and was first published in 1914, the year the first World War broke out.  Trying to understand this old-fashioned Irish jargon seems, to me, like trying to read Italian - I can guess at what's going on, from what I know of the similar languages Spanish and English, but not much more.
          And aside from jargon, there are the historical references to Parnell, religious and regional rivalries, and other things that I am just not very familiar with.  (I feel like we Americans are very egotistical in terms of our education system - we devote so little time to studying countries other than our own.  If my high school history classes taught me anything about Ireland, for example, I might have understood this book better!)
          I ended up asking some Irish friends of mine to read one of the most dialogue-heavy stories, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room", out loud to me so that I could pepper them with questions whenever I got confused.  I learned that fenians and hillsiders are basically country bumpkins, sponging = freeloading, and a shoneen is a yes-man or a fool.  I also heard all about Parnell, a great Irish king who brought Ireland together and who would have made the country great if he had not been removed from power by petty politics.  It was a wonderful way to spend a rainy evening.
          The most important thing, of course, is that I loved the book, and I loved it even more after I understood what the characters were saying!  Joyce had an amazing talent for translating the voices of people around him into written dialogue, and my appreciation for this gift was not lessened by my ignorance.  In addition, when we were listening to "Ivy Day" being read aloud, everyone in the audience interrupted with their approval each time a new character was described.  "His face, shining with raindrops, had the appearance of damp yellow cheese save where two rosy spots indicated cheekbone" was my favorite one-line description.  I can perfectly imagine the new character's cold sallow face popping out of the dark committee room door.
          One word of advice: If you're clueless like me, I do suggest that you make use of a well-rounded dictionary as you read this book, to be used whenever a word such as spondulic appears.
          - Carly


  1. "A fellow sponging"... lol,..I am so stealing that! :D

  2. Dubliners is my favorite Joyce because, believe it or not, it's the most comprehensible! Maybe you'll read Ulysses one day and it explain it to me.

  3. Your post made me go back and re-read "The Dead." Damn, that Joyce can finish a story: "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." Sublime.

    That's true of Ulysses, too, actually. Once you battle your way to the end you're left totally breathless. It's certainly one of the greatest endings ever written.

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