Thursday 5 March 2009

Dubliners by James Joyce – the jury is in

I would have liked to pass judgement on one of John Updike’s novels, but I haven’t been able to get hold of any of his best-rated books. The two WH Smiths I tried didn’t have them, and our local library has all of them on loan: whenever someone dies, his books seem to get read a lot more – the same happened to Robbe-Grillet last year, and all his books became suddenly unavailable at the London Library. I’ll bid my time and report on Updike some other time.

I thought I’d go back and reread one of my favourite books of my school days: Joyce’s Dubliners. I think I read it in Italian originally, but then I studied it at university and slouched my way through the English text for an exam. So this was the first time I read it for pleasure in English.

Did I like the book?
Yes, I liked it more than I thought I’d do, and more than I liked it when I read it for the first time.

What did I like most?
Sense of place, characterization and dialogue.

What didn’t work for me?
The under-punctuation, which the editor of the volume is so proud about. I think it would read better, without affecting the rhythm of Joyce’s prose, if commas were restored in the right places. Some of Joyce’s repetitions don’t seem all that clever or even intentional.

Would I publish it?
I hope I will, when Joyce is out of copyright in two or three years’ time. But perhaps Joyce’s grandson or some American lawyer will find a way to prevent us from doing it.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I’d publish it, of course . . . although if it came as a collection of short stories from a young unknown Irish author . . .

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
Yes, even if I knew the stories already.

The best bit in the book?
By far the last story, ‘The Dead’.

The best scene in the book?
Not a scene – but the last paragraph of ‘The Dead’.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
I’ve got this silly old Grafton job from Elisabetta’s student days. It’s falling apart – pages are slipping away. Many lines are underlined in black or blue ink and in pencil. It’s all scribbled over. The paper is so bad and yellowish that I felt I wanted to sneeze every time I turned a page. The illustrations are not that great – they could have saved the money and the bother. The typesetting is awful – the text is bursting out of the page (but there are no widows, surprisingly). The editing may well be up to the highest academic standards, but on such a cheap edition (1988 retail price £2.99) the editor’s 'Note on the Text' and the textual variants come across as ludicrous. This book may well have seen better days, but it looks if it was always as bad as it is now. The cover shows a big yellow JAMES JOYCE on a cream background, with the tiny title underneath, and a diagonal white band near the bottom right corner announcing in black letters “FEATURING THE DEAD - NOW A MAJOR JOHN HUSTON FILM”. Incidentally, I remember watching that movie when it came out. I watched it a couple of times in fact – brilliant movie. But going back to what I was saying, this book’s production sucks. I think even Penguin can do better than that, on a good day.

My final verdict?
It remains one of the best collections of short stories I have read so far. I much prefer this book to Ulysses – and certainly to Finnegans Wake. After all these English books, my next book has got to be Italian or Russian. Stay tuned.



  1. Where could I get this book? It seems fun.

  2. If you are planning to read a Russian book next, take - or sth else by Sorokin.

  3. I would like to see a book which combined "The Dead" and Anne Pigone's, "The Ugly", letting the two stories run in parallel on opposing pages.

    As you are perhaps aware, "The Ugly" is a line for line rewrite of "The Dead". All the characters and incidents of the latter are encompassed in the former.

    The fun thing is that everyone has undergone a sex change and moved to Boulder, Colorado.

    A project for Alma, perhaps.


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