Thursday, December 22, 2011

Making A Connection

The stint of rereading some of the texts I'm teaching next year is having an odd effect on me. I got through The Great Gatsby feeling entirely detached from the characters, though relishing the precision of the writing. This was quite a different experience from my previous reading of the novel, I think around about a year ago, when I found myself deeply involved in the enigmatic Jimmy Gatz in a way I'd never managed before.

Then it was on to Dubliners, and a similar sense of detachment. I read story after story with an unpitying eye, though feeling deeply involved at the level of style. This may have had something to do with the fact I will have to teach the stories - whatever that means.

Then I arrived at The Dead and something happened. Joyce's polished looking glass somehow evoked that simple sense of compassionate fellowship with his deeply flawed, deeply human citizens of dear dirty Dublin that I think many academic critics miss. I suppose it's because something in me identifies with Gabriel Conroy in a way that is the opposite of reassuring, and yet affords access to some troubling truths. Gabriel is trying to be a good man and in some important ways succeeding. If you are dead to the fact his speech at dinner is genuinely touching it seems to me you don't stand a chance of grasping what Joyce is up to. Yet that speech is, at the same time, deeply self-serving. Not either/or: both. So we are invited to judge him, yet the complexity of what we must deal with resists easy judgement. Like life. And all along we are judging ourselves.

When I got to the reference to Aunt Julia probably dying in the year ahead that comes just before the end of the story I suddenly realised just how much of a tribute to the two rather foolish sisters at its centre the story is, once you shift your attention from Gabriel and his concerns. My own eyes momentarily filled with the kind of generous tears that Gabriel becomes prey to in the final sequence. But, of course, Joyce alerts us to our capacity for ultimately selfish sentimentalising so we can feel that we have somehow learnt something, moved forward through his art.

I think Joyce takes us as far as fiction can go in an awareness of its powers and its real limitations. If not here, then certainly in what follows.

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