Tuesday, September 12, 2006

It's the Little Things

Cross posted at A Curious Singularity Exquisite. Sublime. That's what I thought of James Joyce's short story "The Dead." The story is the final one in Dubliners. I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man earlier this year which ended my fear of Joyce. For some reason I thought "The Dead" would have a similar feel and style to Portrait. Wrong! There were flashes of beauty and brilliance in Portrait but it tended to be choppy too. "The Dead" was smooth and shiny and gorgeous all the way through. I found all the characters to have depth, even the ones we only see briefly like Lily who answers the door as the guests arrive and help the men with their coats. She has a story and I want to know it. The party had tones of Dickens in it I thought, friends and family coming together and having a good time no matter the circumstances in their everyday lives, they can have this brief time of pleasure. But the party all seems to be prelude. I've mentioned before how Virginia Woolf in her short stories builds and builds until it all comes to one moment, even to one sentence. Proust does the same thing. And here Joyce is doing it too. The party is fun and interesting and all , but it is just there to get you ready for after the party, for the moment when Gabriel sees his wife Gretta standing in shadow on the stairs, listening to a song. Gabriel is enchanted, sees how beautiful his wife is, decides if he were a painter he would paint her just like that. Gabriel feels joyful and all the way home notices how beautiful his wife looks. He loves her and thinks on their life together,

Like the tender fire of the stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers.
And it goes on and is so lovely. Joyce perfectly captures those small moments when suddenly everything is transformed, and it is always a small moment, a smile, a gesture, a blush. One is inexplicably filled to the brim with an expansive joy that seems to make time stop. Joyce is equally as good at capturing what happens afterward. In the case of Gabriel and Gretta, Gabriel finds out that the song Gretta was listening to reminded her of her youth at Galway and a boy named Michael Furey died for her. Gabriel's initial jealousy disappears, his wife falls asleep and he lays in bed, thinking and looking at his wife. And he realizes that one by one all become shades and enter the world of the dead. These last few paragraphs are breathtakingly beautiful. I know I keep saying beautiful, lovely exquisite, but I don't know how else to saw it. What else does one say about a sentence like this one: "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." Or this one: "His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling." And the final sentence: "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." The way the joy of the small moment of Gabriel watching Gretta on the stairs moves to the quiet, melancholy end is incredibly affecting. There are some stories that stay in your head and you just think, oh that was good. Then there are stories like "The Dead" that go to your heart.