CAPTION: Man dies from boredom on Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge while reading a very long novel. *Photo courtesy of Philip Pankov (www.philpankov.com) and www.thenocturnes.com.
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
I’m a huge Poe fan and I as well am mystified (did I spell that right?) by his death. Thanks for the heads-up, DS. I’ve got a few of those dead ones as well. Especially after reading great books from a creator like Patricia Cornwell, I’m hugely dissapointed with books that don’t live up to the author’s potential.
Rebecca, there are doubtless many who enjoy Pearl’s style (The Poe Shadow was a best seller), I’m just not one of them. I would rather research Poe’s death myself than read Pearl’s fictional tale. –DHS
Nobody beats Poe.
Terry, you got that right! Pearl was foolish to try to match Poe’s style. –DHS
I share your sentiments here. “The Dead” is my personal favorite of Joyce’s. It’s a great piece to revisit in those literary “times of need.”
Erin, yes, isn’t it wonderful to have these little literary treasures to uncover again and again to remind us just how good stories can be? I can think of no greater inspiration. –DHS
Matthew Pearl is a horrible writer and it baffles me that his books have been so successful. I rarely abandon reads, but I bailed out on “The Dante Club” after about 100 pages. My God, the prose was wooden!
“Dubliners” is indeed one of the best short story collections ever penned in English. One of my favorites from the book is “Counterparts.”
You can read my thoughts on it here:
George, I found Joyce’s “Counterparts” to be strikingly depressing (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and a brilliant character piece. Thanks for sharing your post. –DHS
Oh, you’re right on about “Counterparts.” It is depressing, but Joyce is just wonderful with the way he completely captures character.
I love his short fiction, but I must admit that I’ve struggled with his experimental full-length novels. They are tough to get through.
George, I have yet to attempt Joyce’s novels. I’m tempted to take a stab at Ulysses, if I could only settle on which edition to pick up. Seems there are far too many versions of it out there. –DHS
I read the post and while it is interesting, I have to disagree with you wholeheartedly on what comes across to me as an arrogant dismissal of a slew of short stories that have been written through the ages. You say, “Occasionally, I come across one that reaches the level of art.” And on the group blog post you say something similar.
Poe is a given, but there are numerous writers of short stories (some also write/wrote novels) that are worth reading, and their short story works are art. Anton Chekhov comes to mind, as well as Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway, T. C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka, Richard Matheson, the list goes on.
As a writer of short stories, and a “new” writer as far as industry and public recognition goes, I am always thrilled to discover great new short stories within the pages of literary magazines, anthologies and short story collections, and to support the writers behind them. Many of the authors do not have name recognition, and disparaging opinions–especially from fellow writers–about the majority of short story literature perpetuate the decline of interest in discovering new works. Once anyone really gets into reading what is out there, it’s clear that while there may be some junk, there’s also a wealth of amazing short and long form literature to be read. All the writers I mentioned started somewhere, and they might have remained undiscovered if not for those that took chances on reading their work.
Nancy, I feel you may have misjudged what I was saying and the purpose of the post. I can understand your need to rush to the defense of the short story form, but I don’t feel it is necessary. I love short stories, and I have read many from both legendary and relatively unknown writers. As a matter of fact, I loved many of yours (as you know). Like any form, there are good short stories and bad short stories. In my post, I was using Vonnegut’s quote that short stories are like “Buddhist catnaps” which implies that they merely serve as escapism (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) as a starting point for discussion, and I took that a step further and said that some actually reach the level of art. This post was meant to celebrate the short story form, and most importantly share my thoughts on my recent reads, the novel The Poe Shadow and James Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. The only person who may need defending as a result of my post is novelist Matthew Pearl. I thought I clearly stated (maybe not based on your reaction) that reading any short story would be better than suffering through a terrible novel. –DHS
Response from Nancy (posted on other blog):
You know what Dave, I believe you’re right. I hear a lot about the short story being dead, and almost all of the new short stories I come across say to me that it isn’t. But on the comment, I wanted to make sure that I was honest in my opinion without being insulting. I do enjoy your posts and tend to visit your blog often, even if I don’t comment.
I read my comment on the post to a trusted friend of mine and they said, “It sounds like you misunderstood.” Well, if I’m wondering about the comment, someone else says what I suspect, and you also reiterate the same sentiment, then . . . my bad. It was a good post though, and while I haven’t read James Joyce since college it made me want to revisit his stories. My original interpretation of the comment in your post is officially retracted.
excuse my english!
into the modern greek literature the short story form has had the privilege to have been served from many gifted writers.
the best among them are papadiamantis and viziinos.
i am a great admirer of the short form, i too hate big novels and i have read a lot of the writers mentioned above.
i consider papadiamantis one of the best worlwide.maybe better than chechov.
in greece he i called ”the saint of our letters”so beautiful his language is.
but in greece today everyone write novels.
it’s a kind of curse i guess, something that shows how rhetoric our era is.
small is really beautiful.
Joyce is the bomb-dizzle!!!
BTW, there is a strange modern-day spoof of “The Dead” by an Irish writer, Anne Pigone, called “The Ugly”. It’s a line-by-line transiteration of the original.