Kurt Vonnegut once said of novels that “reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody else knows or cares about.”
I couldn’t agree more while I find myself in a laborious relationship with The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. The novel is a fictionalized account of a Baltimore lawyer’s quest to solve the mystery behind the death of Edgar Allan Poe. This is one of those books with an interesting concept ruined by the author’s insistence on telling the story in the static, unimaginative style of prose from the stuffy time period in which the novel takes place. It’s makes for a dry, boring read. Much like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, I fear I may never finish it. I’m currently stuck at about the 100 page mark. I should’ve known better when I saw Carr’s glowingly positive blurb splattered on the cover of Matthew Pearl’s magnum opus. Though I find the topic of Poe’s death fascinating, reading Pearl’s novel makes me feel…well, dead.
And that brings us to James Joyce and “The Dead.” Thankfully for every bad novel I torture myself with, there are dozens of short stories I can read in between chapters that are as Vonnegut once described, “Buddhist catnaps.” Short stories provide perfect little meditative escapes from everyday life and respite from bad novels. Occasionally, I come across one that reaches the level of art. James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one such story. It’s possibly the greatest short story I have ever read. Its only rivals in my mind would be “The Basement Room” (known in some circles as “The Fallen Idol”) by Graham Greene and two short stories about the same family that I think are inseparable, “Two Soldiers” and “Shall Not Perish” by William Faulkner.
Originally published in 1914, James Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners, is considered by many to be one of the greatest collections of the form in the English language. I was given an edition of the collection as a gift this past holiday season and recently finished reading it. Reprinted by 1st World Library (www.1stworldlibrary.org), the edition I was presented is indicative of the modern troubles plaguing the publishing world as they try to keep up with technology and the “instant availability” our culture currently demands. It’s printed with odd spacing and typeface and riddled with typos I know were not present in the original editions. It’s as if this publishing company (which has nobly taken to task the reprinting and distribution of many classic pieces of literature which are currently in the public domain) hired an illiterate data entry clerk to sit there with the original copies of the works and retype everything word for word into a portable file for print-on-demand technology. I definitely recommend picking up an older edition (I believe Penguin Classics still has one in print) if you are to explore Dubliners in the future. Still, even with these quirks of this particular edition, James Joyce’s amazing prose shines through. While each in the collection is worthy of merit, the closing tome, “The Dead”, emerges as an unflinching masterpiece and an iconic example of the power of the short story form that is still accessible to modern readers.
Taking place over the course of a single evening dedicated to the annual Christmas-time dance of the spinster Morkan sisters, Joyce’s “The Dead” begins like a Robert Altman-esque mosaic character piece examining the different types of people inhabiting Dublin at the turn of the 20th century (my favorite being the drunken Freddy Malins). Joyce’s focus eventually turns sharply on Gabriel Conroy, who becomes struck by the image of his wife, Gretta, standing in a darkened hall gazing up a staircase listening to distant music from another room. The feelings that well up in Gabriel while intoxicated by this image lead him to inwardly examine his life with Gretta while she outwardly reveals a secret that has been locked inside her for years. The imagery Joyce creates and the emotions he invokes make “The Dead” a melancholic and meditative exploration of love, family, memory, and death. The elegiac closing passages describing snow falling on Dublin are as powerful as anything I have ever read.
“The Dead” was made into a film in 1987 staring Angelica Huston as Gretta Conroy. It was the last film from her legendary director father, John Huston. It’s also been adapted into an award winning stage play. I can’t imagine any adaptation or re-imagining comparing to Joyce’s original piece, which will continue to inspire other artists for generations to come. Joyce’s words, like the snowflakes, will be heard forever, “falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
For more literary criticism on “The Dead” check out:
To read “The Dead” go here:
Written by David H. Schleicher