I most definitely have an attitude problem when it comes to Difficult Literary Works. I get really irritable when I feel like something has been written with the purpose of being inaccessible. Rebellion rears its ugly head until Jane Austen's voice kicks in and the soothing, subtle, sarcasm calms me down: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible." Yes, my "about me" blurb lurking on the side of my screen is a reminder to smooth down my hackles. Is being unintelligible really the goal? Are books only deemed amazing if thousand of scholar hours have been required to figure the thing out?
For the most part, I've been amazed at how approachable most classics and literary works really are. Of course, that may be partly characteristic to the ones I've chosen to read. I generally don't choose to read books that I think I'll hate. Tolstoy, Austen, Bronte, Camus, and Bulgakov--to name a few--are all authors whose works can be appreciated on many levels and withstand rereading.
The first story in Dubliners really struck me in this purposefully inaccessible manner (I've read 9 of the 15 stories) although I am happy to say my initial impression has begun to turn around. Really, though, the first stories are pretty bland and boring and just don't say much to me.
I find myself irritated with Joyce. I probably shouldn't be: I should probably sympathize with him for the stifling world he emerged from, and be moved by the horrid degeneration of the Catholic church and Dublin as a whole. But he really just strikes me as a bitter, a glass-half-empty sort of person--and my patience starts to wear thin. Here's the rundown of the first 9 stories:
- The Sisters--a boy's first experience with death and coming to terms with a "man of God". This wasn't even a story really. There were so many details missing that people who love subtle symbolism and detailed analysis would probably love it, filling in all those things Joyce purposefully left out, but I'm not one of those people. Like reading Old English: not my cup of tea.
- An Encounter--some boys skip school looking for adventure, and instead are bored, and have An Encounter with a old man whom the boy comes to realize is a pervert. What I gathered: Dublin is bleak and solitary. Check. That's why Joyce escaped. Got it.
- Araby--a boy is filled with romantic ambition, but is humiliated when he realizes he was being way too fanciful. After all his dreaming he cannot escape the fact that he is a poor Dubliner. Trapped. Like Joyce was until he got away from that horrid place, right?
- Eveline--19 years old, Eveline plans to escape Dublin with a sailor, but at the last minute chickens out. Dublin may be hell, but at least it's a hell she's familiar with, I guess. Joyce was way braver than that.
- After the Race--A bunch of wealthy young men party too hard after an auto race. No matter how they try, the Irish just can't compete with the rest of the world. That's why you should move out of Dublin, I'm guessing, and become a leader instead of a follower.
- Two Gallants--Two aimless young men in Dublin consider the pursuit of women and drink. Because that's all that one has a chance of accomplishing/acquiring in Dublin. It's a bleak, poor place.
- The Boarding House --A girl starts an affair with a man living in her mother's boarding house. The mother observes, then manipulates the man into a proposal. It isn't about love, it's about getting what you want, stepping on someone else to get a little higher, even if the act of stepping and that smidgen of height leave you a little lower than the person you were stepping on. This was the first story I enjoyed (although I felt a twinge of appreciation in Eveline) because I felt that there was at least a speck of humor in it. It didn't leave me as totally bleak and depressing, regardless of Joyce's intentions (of which I can only surmise).
- A Little Cloud--(My favorite story so far) A newly married man is both excited and intimidated by the prospect of a visit of an old pal who had moved out of Dublin to London (I'm starting to think that this book can be boiled down to "Bad=Dublin, Good=Anywhere Else"). He starts to wish he had followed his dreams like his pal did, even though he is not impressed by who he's become. I liked how this story took the "ideal/envy turns into reality/disappointment" idea further by bringing the main character back to his home and showing the next steps, which were cyclical back to the idealization. I found it sad that the main character viewed escape from Dublin as the road to advancement, being totally blind to any changes he could make at home to improve his life. So often we think we need a drastic change to make things right, when in reality there is often a simple adjustment that will make a huge difference.
- Counterparts--A vivid telling of a sad story. A dull alcoholic exerts his power and anger in the only area of his life that he can: the helpless target of his young son. This story follows Farrington through his work day and into the night where he meets up with friends to drink and socialize. He ends up back at home quite late and rather angry. The pleading of his young son while being beaten is where the story ends. Well written? Yes. But mostly just sad. Yes, Farrington feels weak and trapped and isolated--a common strand throughout these stories--and yes, it is an unfortunate truth that some parents beat their children. But...harumph.
If I'm really impressed by the end of the collection, perhaps I'll give the first stories another chance. After all, many writers simply have a necessary phase of getting acquainted with the writing style before being able to really appreciate what is being read. Where do you draw the line between difficult to read and simply not-my-style?