Read from June 6th to 18th 2013
The Winter of Our Oblivion
Joyce, you have to take him in small doses, carefully tasted and swallowed. Do not expect to like his universe, do not expect to lose yourself in some kind of epic bliss. You can never choose to be a first-level reader of his books (to use Umberto Eco‘s terminology), only a second-level one, that is, one who looks rather for how than for what it is told. If you don’t, the grey desperation of his characters can easily become your own, since their epiphanies are all about dullness and hopelessness, about bleakly understanding their lives and resigning to their fate.
The greatest epiphany concerns of course Dublin, the main character of Joyce’s books. Stephen Dedalus' and Leopold Bloom's Dublin, Dubliners' and Fineggan Wake’s Dublin is a dead, morose city where nothing happens, and nevertheless this “nothingness” gains Homeric proportions as every (apparently) insignificant hero fights for his right to be exactly this: insignificant. For there is a quiet dignity in these existences meant only for the background, in their determination to ascertain that background is also important. And maybe this is why the book begins with a death and finishes with “The Dead”, to emphasize that the lifeless life they lead, with their lack of ambitions, dreams, which seems to paralyze their actions and diminish their existence, is in fact life. Life of options you never considered, life of all that could have been but never was, second-hand life that suffocates you and cannot be redeemed. Not important, not novel-material, not exceptional – only life.
Like Eveline’s life, whose hands grip the iron railing in a revealing gesture of all characters’ mentality, of their incapacity of changing, of their clinging to routine. Every one of them is Eveline coming back from the docks, every one of them lost somewhere, sometimes his chance to become somebody:
"Come!"No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish."Eveline! Evvy!"
He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
And what keeps them prisoners is indeed the city, that small city where “everyone knows everyone else's business” (The Boarding House), from which you have to go away “if you wanted to succeed” (A Little Cloud), which only in the night wears “the mask of a capital” (After the Race). And its grasp is so powerful that even when they realize its ill charm: "I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!" (The Dead), they do nothing to evade it, forever trapped in a background that blurs their contours and refuses to give them the spotlight:
He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step. (The Boarding House)
No wonder the stories are all about un-fulfilment – fifteen sorts of it, each one approaching major themes as love, marriage, motherhood, career, politics, religion, but treating them in minor keys. Thus, the first three stories of “Dubliners” are told by three young narrative voices that evoke by turn dubious or disappointing experiences in their growing-up process – like the death of and the encounter with a potential child-molester, or a first, unrequited love. The rest belong to an omniscient voice that blankly and monotonously reports on other, good or bad occasions that slipped away, desecrating, one after another, all human ideals: love (Eveline, A Painful Case), motherhood (The Boarding House, A Mother), fulfilment (A Little Cloud, After the Race) redemption (Grace, Two Gallants, Counterparts), patriotism (Ivy Day in the Committee Room).
The last story, The Dead, offers a last, synthetic view of this world in Gabriel Conroy’s image, whose apparently calm and settled life hides an angry resignation for missed occasions either in personal and social life. The last image of the book, although no less desolate, is somehow cathartic, a burial of the hero’s inner and outer world in the winter of our discontent, the winter of the oblivion:
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.