My next book in the 2013 reading list is James Joyce’s classic first book of stories, Dubliners. I had read several of the stories both as a student and in teaching high school and college. “Clay,” “Araby,” “Eveline,” and “The Dead” (which clocks in at over 15,000 words and so might be considered a borderline novella) are all well regarded (and oft anthologized) classics of the story form.
What matters about good stories, though, is something besides their use in anthologies where they are inflicted on students (and their teachers) as tests of the ability of the first to decipher and attempt to comprehend work often beyond their ken (and God knows this is not getting better as we move into a post reading culture) and of the second, if they have any real love of literary art, of their ability to impart that love (and its attendant virtues of engagement, reflection, and, ultimately appreciation) to their charges. This is not easy – and most students (and, I must admit, though it pains me) their teachers – fail at this.
I’ve been a writer and teacher for a long time. Because, perhaps, I was meant to become a writer, I have always, it seems, engaged with stories in ways that others might not. Not only do I read for content (what the critic Louise Rosenblatt calls “efferent reading“), I read to see how a writer makes a story: how he or she constructs stories; what sorts of word choices he/she makes.
The late, great Rust Hills (I think it was) once claimed that the greatest opening sentence in any short story was the first line of Stephen Crane’s brilliant “The Open Boat“:
None of them knew the color of the sky.
From there Crane could, it seems, could have us be or go anywhere. It is magnificent.
And that’s something that hit me as I read Dubliners. I know of no writer of short stories – not Crane, nor Chekhov, nor Poe, not Lessing nor Mason nor Porter – who can begin so well as Joyce. See the following:
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. – “Eveline”
There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. – “The Sisters”
It was Joe Dillon who introduced the Wild West to us. – “An Encounter”
Two gentlemen who were in the lavatory at the time tried to lift him up: but he was quite helpless. – “Grace”
Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. – “The Dead”
One of the things one learns from the study of literature is that one of the first great storytellers, the legendary Homer, knew how to get us into a narrative. The term is in medias res – “in the midst of things.”
In Dubliners we are always in the midst of things. Right from the beginning….