As someone who has failed over and over with Ulysses – but who hasn’t? – I couldn’t resist returning at the weekend to Joyce’s most famous story, which is that rarest combination of qualities: the work of a genius that you can get through in one sitting. I can’t resist a handsome volume, and ‘The Dead’ is published in a standalone edition by Melville House Publishing, in their series The Art of the Novella. (I hereby salute my fellow book blogger Lizzy Siddal for introducing me to them.) Is it really a novella, at 64 pages? More cost-effective anyway to pick it up as part of his collection Dubliners, or indeed there is no shortage of places where you can read it online for free. Anyway, this is the edition I read: plain and handsome, and irresistible with a matching design bar of chocolate. Both items now consumed.
It was years since I’d read ‘The Dead’ and I remembered almost nothing about it, apart from those extraordinary closing lines. And I don’t plan to say much more about it now, other than: read it. Despite its formal simplicity and beauty, I had to start it twice, just to get a handle on the flurry – one might say blizzard – of character Joyce refers to and introduces in the opening pages.
The setting, to try to whet the appetite without spoiling it, is a house party held by two elderly Dublin women, referred to as Miss Kate and Miss Julia, and their niece Mary Jane. Visitors are plentiful, including Freddy Malins (“they were dreadfully afraid [he] might turn up screwed”) and the hostesses’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta.
Where Joyce succeeds in ‘The Dead’ is in bring together so many elements almost in a showcase of virtuoso story writing. There is politics (this is Ireland, after all) in Gabriel’s confrontation with Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist. There is psychological insight as Gabriel, who will be making a speech at the party, turns himself inside out with the fear that the erudite references he has planned will seem like snobbery, and alienate the other guests, drilling a perverse inferiority complex into himself as a result. There is brilliant rhythm in the prose:
Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music, but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the keyboard or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page.
And wit too: when the music ends, “the most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped.”
As well as this, Joyce nods toward his future flirtations with textual playfulness, when he has Gabriel reflect on seeing his wife, and “asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.” The story, at the risk of demeaning it, could almost be written with study in mind, so plentiful are the interpretations of the snow, the guests, Gabriel’s intentions and motivations, and the subject of the title: the dead. This brings us to those famous closing words, and I hope it will count as an enticement rather than ruining the effect if I take the opportunity to quote them here. There is, after all, a great pleasure to be had in typing out words that you know you would never be able to come near in perfection of phrasing. Is it a novella or just a story? In truth, it contains more than many multi-volume novels. This, and all that above, among other things, is the beauty of ‘The Dead.’
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted upon the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly though the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.