Boarding House, Dublin, Dubliners, Gorgonzola Sandwich, James Joyce, Ten Euro Coin, Two Gallants
Just got back from “dear dirty Dublin”.
Actually, it’s very clean on the whole, although there is a complicated dispute going on about a new property tax – which is related in an odd sort of way. Bear with me.
It seems that in Dublin they don’t have the equivalent of our council tax. ‘Rates’, as they called them, were abolished in 1997 (a pre-election pledge given when the economy was still booming.) Theoretically, water supply and sanitation services, in contrast to most countries in the world, are provided free of charge to domestic users, paid for out of general taxation. Apparently, though, with creeping privatisation, it seems some are having to pay private firms to take their rubbish away. You might have thought that the new property tax would have been brought in as a sort of equivalent to our council tax to pay for these vital local services, but no. It seems that the property tax is, well, just a tax on property.That’s it. It doesn’t pay for any services. It just helps to pay off the European loan that Ireland has been forced to take out because of its exploded economy. Brought on by its greedy bankers I suppose. It must seem to some Dubliners that they’re having to pay to get their bins removed in three different ways.
As with us, this sort of thing is leaving rather a bitter taste in the mouth. “The feety savour of green cheese,” as Joyce puts it in Ulysses when describing a gorgonzola sandwich.
But I digress.
I’ve just got back from “dear dirty Dublin,” as I was saying, and am astonished (again) by the institutional veneration of James Augusta Aloysius Joyce. From Bloom’s Bar on the Ulysses ferry (where I enjoyed several pints of Guinness on the way out and back) to the tourist maps full of the ubiquitous double J of the “James Joyce Connection” and the recent striking of a ten euro coin in Joyce’s honour, Dublin is the James Joyce city.
Odd, it seems to me.
Odd because, on the evidence of a re-reading of ‘Dubliners’ at least, James Joyce seems to be generally contemptuous of Dublin’s people, if not the streets that they walk in.
‘Dubliners’ is famously a collection of stories about paralysis. A paralysis of morality, of the imagination and of the body itself.
The few ‘successful’ characters in the collection are self-aggrandising, self-serving and shallow. Take Gallagher, a character in ‘A Little Cloud’, with his nasty way of equating women (or marriage) and money – “I’ve only to say the word and tomorrow I can have the woman and the cash” – or, Lenehan, from ‘Two Gallants’, holding out the “small gold coin in his hand” (parodying Judas) after his ‘business’ with the “blunt” featured woman. These characters are just nasty but the majority of Dubliners are seemingly trapped in lives which stultify them or turn them into helpless monsters, like Little Chandler (in ‘A Little Cloud’) shouting at the baby because its crying stops him from reading his poetry, feeling himself a “prisoner for life”. Or there is the repulsive bullying boss in ‘Counterpart’, Mr Alleyne, who employs the hideous Farrington who in his turn bullies and strikes his own child, ignoring him as he cries out, “Don’t beat me pa! Don’t beat me!” Other Dubliners are just trapped by dubiously pragmatic manipulators, as Jimmy is in ‘After the Race’, his head in a “dark stupor” and out of his depth after his night of gambling with his more ‘knowing’ friends. Or there’s poor Mr Doran who is tricked into marriage by the coldly calculating Mrs Mooney (in ‘The Boarding House’) who “deals with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat”.
The word that springs to my mind to describe this gallery of failed, frustrated and trapped people is the word ‘pitiful’.
At times the experience of reading ‘Dubliners’ does give rise to genuine pathos, as in ‘The Dead’ when Gabrielle becomes painfully, “shamefully” aware of how ludicrous he is, misunderstanding, as he does, his wife’s feelings about a previous lover. And this pathos is often strengthened by the beauty of Joyce’s deceptively simple prose, as in the “reflections of candles on darkened blinds” (‘Sisters’), or the “branches of tall trees (lining) the mall with gay little light leaves .. the sun slanting through them onto the water (‘The Encounter’) or as in ‘The Dead’ with “the snow falling faintly through the universe, falling faintly … Upon all the living and the dead”.
Even so, the famous epiphanies in these stories are often cruel, it seems to me, amounting to nothing more than a painfully sharp awareness of failure or loss.
Perhaps, though, the key to Joyce’s purposes is in that word “universe” from ‘The Dead’.
Joyce reportedly said (as recorded in Ellmann’s biography) that “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
So there we have it.
Joyce wasn’t writing just about Dubliners but about all mankind. Similarly, ‘Ulysses’ is not just about Bloom’s and Stephen’s one day in one city but all men’s (and women’s) experiences in all places and times.
But I still can’t help thinking that Joyce didn’t actually like Dubliners very much.
He exiled himself after 1904, at the age of 22, returning only intermittently till 1912 and hardly at all, as far as I can see, after that. When he died he was buried in Zurich, not Dublin.
Even today his descendants recall what they consider to be bad treatment by the Irish state – although I am unclear what this treatment actually amounts to. He had difficulty getting his work published, sure enough, and Dublin was nervous about some of his views, true. And Joyce felt, it seems, that he couldn’t write the sort of books he wanted to write whilst still in Dublin, and nor could he go on living in Dublin in his unmarried state with Nora Barnacle (whom he didn’t actually marry until 1931 after leaving Dublin with her in 1904).
But why else was Joyce so upset by Ireland? I’m sure someone will enlighten me.
Recently the Irish state, clearly with the intention of cementing still further the connection with Joyce and drawing in more gullible literary tourists like myself, have struck a 10 euro coin in honour of the writer, adorned with his face and a quotation from ‘Ulysses’ no less. Unfortunately, it is a misquotation, or rather they have put in an extra word. The word is “that”. This is clearly a stupid mistake but the Joyce Estate sees it as more than ‘that’. It is, instead, a deliberate insult to Joyce’s memory.
They don’t much like the look of the likeness on the coin either.
Meanwhile, the pubs still have their plaques up claiming that Joyce drank here, or that one of his characters did.
“He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once… Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.”
I (like thousands of tourists before me) entered Davy Byrne’s myself recently. I had a very enjoyable Gorgonzola sandwich along with a delicious pint of Guinness (rather than the glass of Burgundy that Bloom has.)
Dublin and Joyce, a relish of mutual disgust and the savour of love.
A bizarre sandwich.