The Craft of Fiction

Dubliners and Double Writing

For admirers of the work of James Joyce today, June 16, is celebrated as Bloomsday (as the events of Joyce’s Ulysses take place on June 16, 1904). But in thinking about Joyce today I have turned not to Ulysses but to his collection of short stories, Dubliners (published in 1914). About Joyce’s technique in Dubliners Hugh Kenner observed that it consisted in a kind of “double writing”:

The technique he developed, the technique which underlies everything from the first pages of Dubliners to the end of Finnegans Wake, came out of the subject: parody: double-writing. The music-halls parodied the heroic dramas; Joyce parodied the music-halls. Journalism parodied heroic elegance: Joyce parodied journalism. He focused, that is to say, on what was actually there, and strove so to set it down that it would reveal itself as what it was, in its double nature: a distortion, but a distortion of something real. All his characters are walking clichés, because the Dubliners were… Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 11.

One example Kenner sets out is from the story, “A Little Cloud.” A young man named Thomas Chandler is dreaming about a career as a poet:

His temperament might be said to be just on the point of maturity. There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics, perhaps, would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that he would put in allusions. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notice which his book would get. “Mr. Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse.” … “A wistful sadness pervades these poems.” … “The Celtic note.”

“Not just the last phrases,” argues Kenner, “but every phrase that passes through Chandler’s mind, from “temperament on the point of maturity” to “the Celtic note,” is reviewers’ jargon; quotation is as close to reality as he gets” (p. 9).

But the jargon, Kenner goes on, had a meaning before the reviewers got hold of it. What Chandler thinks is a distortion, or a cliché, but even the distortion and cliché reflects something of reality, however obliquely. Chandler’s thought, says Kenner, “contains shreds of meaning still. And Chandler is no contemptible gull; he has really felt some wordless emotion stirring within him, and his melancholy is genuine, and he is seriously meditating a career” (p. 9).

The effect produced upon the reader, as Padraic Colum puts it in the Introduction to the Modern Library edition of Dubliners, is “a feeling of detachment”: “It would seem that he had decided to illustrate the life of Dublin through a series of reports, taking this and that incident and being as clear and as unconcerned in the reporting of it as a scientific historian might be” (New York: Modern Library, 1954), xi. (Colum, however, does not attribute such detachment to all the stories in Dubliners–”Eveline” and “The Dead” being among the exceptions).

But to combine Colum’s thought with Kenner’s: what Joyce reports upon so scientifically in Dubliners is talk, language, the rhetoric of a city that “acts on the promptings of idées reçues and talks in words that have for too long been respoken” (Kenner, p. 10).

Thus Kenner concludes–in an observation he attributes to T.S. Eliot*–Joyce has many “voices” but no “style” (p. 12).

* T.S. Eliot, “Lettre d’Angleterre: Le Style dans la Prose Anglaise Contemporaine,” La Nouvelle Revue Française, xix, July-December 1922, 751-6.

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