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How James Joyce’s Dubliners heralded the urban era

It is through Joyce’s intimate rummagings through the city’s yens and wardrobes that we come closest to identifying its inhabitants.

Joyce: “You will retard the course of civilisation by preventing the Irish from having a good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass”

So out of the castle – filled as it was with hectoring Victorians – walked James Joyce and, with the flames of colonialism still licking his toes, he left it behind. Down into the city and a city where none had been, or at least no one who meant much to him. “When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the ‘second’ city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world,” he wrote to his brother Stanislaus in 1905. That it was really only a thousand years hardly makes him less big than his boots, though it does reveal the brag’s tang of Dublin romance – something Joyce never lost, though he hid it beneath scorn.

Aged 23 and scratching by teaching English in Trieste to support his writing, son and companion in purposeful sin, Nora Barnacle, Joyce could not know he was barely at the beginning of his now-infamous battle to be published. With the financial turmoil of his childhood to harry him, and his Jesuitical genius to buoy him, he spent the next nine years submitting and resubmitting the manuscript – 18 times to 15 different publishers in all, only to have it repeatedly fail to get off the other end of the press in one piece.

The publication history of Dubliners reeks of the familiar odour of editorial ineptitude: loss of the manuscript, moral outrage at the use of the word “bloody”, printers offering their own edits and ordering copies to be burned in protest at the stories’ unpatriotic bent. It was only Joyce’s tenacity and immodest adherence to the logic of his work that allowed him to prevail. By 1906 he was already replying to a potential publisher: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs around my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having a good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

As the years passed, however, and his initial pique-ridden rejection of Ireland hardened into irrevocable, philosophically driven fact, Joyce’s bitterness and desperation increased. One attempt to bypass the byzantine legal requirements of a publisher led him to write directly to George V about “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” to enquire whether His Majesty may or may not find certain passages “offensive to the memory of his father”. A letter to Stanislaus in 1911, referring to yet another rejection, concluded: “I know the name and tradition of my country too well to be surprised at receiving three scrawled lines in return for five years of constant service to my art . . .”

When the book was eventually published, in June 1914, the fears of the liability-shy publishers proved unfounded. In the Egoist Ezra Pound, after several unsurprisingly snobbish remarks about Joyce’s Irishness, welcomed him to the fold, declaring, “Mr Joyce’s more rigorous selection of the presented detail marks him, I think, as belonging to my own generation . . .” And Gerald Gould’s review in the New Statesman (27 June 1914) opened: “It is easy to say of Gorky that he is a man of genius. To say the same of Mr James Joyce requires more courage, since his name is little known; but a man of genius is precisely what he is.” By this time Joyce was far into the serialisation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the seeds of his combatively physical style were sown and nothing after could be the same.

The might and muscle of Dubliners is in the lives of its characters and Joyce’s carefully noted motes on its streets. It courses across the blackened handkerchief of the snuff-snorting priest in “The Sisters”, the wary grief of the child who mourns his passing and the freewheeling criticism of those who feel entitled to their say once he’s gone. It runs livid through the masturbating moraliser in “An Encounter”, coaxing chat of sweethearts from little boys then working himself up to a foamy-mouthed frenzy describing the whipping he’d give lads who’d dare talk to girls. And it aggravates most poignantly in the self-paralysing timidity of Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud”, who longs for his friend Gallaher’s life of bawdy cosmopolitanism but comes to understand that the chief cause of its impossibility is himself.

It is through Joyce’s intimate rummagings through the city’s yens and wardrobes that we come closest to identifying its inhabitants. The anxious spectacle-polishing of Mr Doran in “The Boarding House” as he awaits his landlady’s declaration that he must marry her daughter, the pushed-back yachting cap of one of the chancers in “Two Gallants” hoping to lift drink money from a “slavey” (servant girl) or the affectation of galoshes for the snow in “The Dead”: these all, subtly, designate his Dubliners as a fussy, middle-class lot, less preoccupied with the getting of bread than the satiation of more finickity wants.

Throughout, Joyce lambastes the sanctimonious complacency of those craven enough to martyr themselves, or those around them, on the altar of appearances and moral rectitude. Witness his flaying in “A Painful Case” of the prissy Mr Duffy, who congratulates himself on denying a lonely – and now-deceased – woman affection but comes to realise how meaningless his sacrifice has been. Accidentally intruding on young lovers at play, “. . . he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast. One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness.” And later: “He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.”

However, it is also in these stop-motion moments of epiphany that Joyce shows benevolence to his city and its inhabitants. The Dubliners are permitted, usually through a chain of minute occurrences, to come, briefly, to a crux of personal revelation and self-recognition. Gabriel’s understanding in “The Dead” of how little he has been in his wife’s life, and how little he has been in himself, is by far the most celebrated of these. The Joycean epiphany does not land glistered with rousing speeches or melodramatic gestures of repentance – it mostly crawls quietly, even dully, from out of the bourgeois slime where its begetter has remained ensludged by belief and circumstance for most of his life. Yet intrinsic to its very idea is the possibility, if not probability, of change. It is here, too, in these moments of secular epiphany, that the greatest gulf yawns between Joyce and his predecessors. Whereas the Victorians were at pains to ensure that no reader was left in any doubt as to the fall-spot of their moral hammer, Joyce offers no authorial interjections. He does not consider his duty to the reader to extend beyond his engagingly mean facsimiles of Dublin life. Such a position leaves his characters free to shift for themselves and allows the reader to peer into their every thought and action, the only authorial expectation being that readers are fully capable of making up their own minds about what they then see. For me this is one of the great pleasures of the collection and, with its kicking out of the soapbox from beneath the foot of every writer since, it’s a significant benchmark in the growing-up process of 20th-century literature, too.

This year marks the centenary of Dubliners’ famously belated publication, raising the question: “What meaning, if any, does it hold for us today?” In a recent radio documentary Anne Enright remarked that the last paragraph of “The Dead” was responsible for more bad writing than any other in the tradition, a point difficult to disagree with. Its deep power abides in the inextricability of Joyce’s masterly control of language and the breadth of his vision. Like the opening of the King James Bible, the end of “The Dead” expresses mankind’s isolation elementally. Its many imitators tend to mistake this for a highly personal kind of pastoral poetry, leading to the unfortunate tradition of things being remembered poignantly in fields.

That Joyce monsters over all of Irish literature – and vast tracts of British and European, too – is not in any doubt. While this is mainly ascribed to the great door-opening that was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, as well as the great door-slamming of Finnegans Wake, the lovely window that is Dubliners retains a special position in the psyche of Irish writers and readers. It has become the most approachable face of the city and its literature.

Joyce’s excoriation of its foibles may have become blunted by the passage of time and the growth of affection for his most accessible work. But the vernacular specificity of his prose, his profound understanding of the fallibilities of the human condition and his joyous recountings of his city’s undercarriage at work, ensure that Dubliners retains a status that few have challenged and even fewer attained.

And those in search of a sharper edge will still certainly find one there. Although the social snares of Edwardian Dublin may now be a thing of the past, in a country not much rebounded from the latest and mightiest betrayal of its people by their own ruling class stories such as “Ivy Day” and “After the Race” continue to ring with a resonance every bit as clear as the day Joyce put pen down. In “Ivy Day” a group of minor local politicians rues the loss of idealism and diminishing level of national discourse subsequent to the treachery perpetrated against the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell. In “After the Race” a young man, surrounded by wealthier friends, loses the run of himself and his purse.

Since then, the Irish political classes have kept themselves on the same rails. They have allowed their lassitude to re-create, over and over, the same poisonous legacy of national paralysis in the face of a greater bad; leaving the quick to pick off the weak while the brazen inherit the earth. Despite Dubliners hitting its century, and Joyce himself being long gone, the death masks he left behind should forbid all the usual excuses for the blinkers that have been worn since. But, much as his characters exist in an endless cycle of rising out of, then returning to, a state of somnambulistic discontent, Ireland, too, threatens to revert to its own cycle of dawning epiphany, followed by beatific denials, then a hopeless, amnesiac caving in to the eternal way of things.

If that seems harsh, it should be remembered how Gabriel’s speech in “The Dead” – after initially berating the new ideas and principles of their “thought-tormented age” – rejects his own “gloomy moralising” in favour of celebrating the “true spirit of camaraderie” and “good-fellowship” that he finds around the table that night.

“The Dead” sits slightly apart from the rest of the collection. Its much later inclusion came after Joyce had spent an extended period abroad and come to miss Irish hospitality. So it is appropriate that he should mark this best-known national characteristic, almost tenderly, in his final and greatest story. For it is fellowship, the want of it, the subversion of it and the excess of it, which lies at the heart of the book – and therefore also at the heart of that bête noire of the early modernists (tackled here and later vanquished so completely by Ulysses): the city itself.

The legacy of Dubliners was, and remains, Joyce’s recognition that, for all his characters’, his country’s and even humanity’s venality and corruption, the feudal castle had finally ceased to be of use. Its wake rang in the time of city and the city from then forward would be the perfect expression of the heart of man.

Eimear McBride’s novel “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” won the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, and the 2013 Goldsmiths Prize in association with the New Statesman (the shortlist for the 2014 prize will be announced in October). She is a contributor to “Dubliners 100: 15 New Stories Inspired by the Original”, published on 5 June by Tramp Press (€15)

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Now listen to Eimear McBride discussing her work with Philip Maughan on the New Statesman podcast: