True to the spirit of Joyce


I’m really thrilled with this review by John Boland  in the Irish Independent of Dubliners 100, which gives special mention to  An Encounter, my take on Joyce’s story of the same name. The book, from newcomers Tramp Press – run by the indefatigable Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff –  showcases the work of 15 contemporary Irish writers who recast Joyce’s stories a hundred years after they first appeared in 1914.

‘It is not my fault,” James Joyce told his London publisher, Grant Richards, “that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Less vehemently, he also told Richards that his intention was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life”.

He wrote those words more than a 100 years ago and now, on the centenary of the first publication of Dubliners, we are offered 15 new stories bearing the same titles that Joyce used, each of them written by a contemporary irish author, and each of them purporting to offer modern ‘cover versions’ of the original.

That, at any rate, is the phrase used by Thomas Morris, who has edited the book for Tramp Press, which was founded in the past year by Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, both of whom met when when they worked at Antony Farrell’s Lilliput Press – where the former discovered Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, which was previously rejected by more than 40 publishers.

It’s unclear, though, what Morris (who recently took up editorship of The Stinging Fly magazine) means by “cover versions” – indeed, his blithely offhand introduction, which is more about himself than the project in hand, suggests not only that he’s unsure himself, but also that he’s not really too bothered about it anyway.

This may explain why he includes a story by Paul Murray that was originally published in 2011 under the name Saint Silence and that’s here been retitled A Painful Case, even though its account of the strange relationship that evolves between a contemptuous (and implausible) restaurant critic and a contemplative monk bears only the most tenuous connection, whether in scenario or tone, to Joyce’s tale about Mr James Duffy.

Nor can it easily be discerned how Patrick McCabe’s raucously fanciful The Sisters bears any relation to Joyce’s opening story, or Peter Murphy’s laboriously contrived The Dead to its majestic antecedent.

And a few other stories are simply too poorly conceived and executed to have merited inclusion in any serious collection. But there are some intriguing – and, indeed, a few outstanding – stories here by writers who have sought to imagine current correspondences to their assigned originals – even if very obliquely in the case of Donal Ryan’s take on Eveline and Eimear McBride’s on Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

Yet while Ryan and McBride have been the two greatest recent discoveries in Irish fiction, the finest stories here – and also the truest to the spirit of the enterprise – are by less acclaimed writers, though mention should also be made of John Boyne’s Araby, in which a boy’s crush on a rugby-playing older boy evokes some of the desolation to be found in Joyce’s original beautiful story. John Kelly’s A Little Cloud, which recasts the condescending Ignatius Gallaher as a New York-based novelist and has him meeting the hapless Little Chandler (here Inky Chandler) in the Merrion Hotel, is also persuasive, as is Andrew Fox’s After the Race, set in Manhattan and involving boasting businessmen as the embodiments of paralytic malaise. Joyce would have known them for what they are.

And he would have appreciated Michelle Forbes’s affecting version of Clay, in which Maria has become the overweight and innocent Conor making his way home to the bleak domestic outpost of Cherrywood, where he’s mocked by a group of trick-or-treating teenage girls.

He would have recognised, too, the hollowness of housewife Kathleen’s existence in Elske Rahill’s A Mother. The story falters towards the end, but the desperation of the loveless Kathleen as she contrives a ghastly social evening is poignantly captured.

Finest of all, though, is Mary Morrissy’s reimagining of that great story, An Encounter, with mitching schoolboy Joe Dillon now becoming schoolgirl Jo Dillon as she and the narrator embark on a mundane though ultimately life-changing jaunt through the middle-class peacefulness of Churchtown and Dartry. The story stands on its own but it’s also true to the spirit of Joyce, who would have applauded its lovingly detailed evocation of place.

Dubliners, a hundred years on

Dubliners 100

I’ve just got a sneak preview of  the cover of Dubliners 100, the book of short stories Tramp Press is bringing out in June to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s Dubliners.

Fifteen writers were asked to do “cover versions” of the stories in Dubliners – the brief was fairly open and the recasting of the stories was left entirely to us. Luckily, I was one of the writers asked. The story I got to rework was An Encounter which is not one of the stories that immediately appealed when I first read Dubliners 35 years ago. (My favourite then was Araby, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog).

But as a result of this commission from Tramp Press, I have read An Encounter very closely over the past few months. It’s one of those stories that offers up its mysteries slowly – a true sign of art – and it has displaced Araby, of my youthful affections, as my mature favourite of Joyce’s stories.

Not much seems to happen in An Encounter.  Two boys, keen for adventure, go on the mitch from school and meet an old man, who may or may not be an exhibitionist. The man speaks to them in a strange fashion; the narrator is oddly entranced by this man but his friend, being more pragmatic, runs away. The result of the encounter is inconclusive but the relationship between the boys – the bookish narrator and his more phlegmatic friend – is changed subtly as a result of it.

The challenge in recasting Joyce is to try to recreate the spirit of the story without resorting to pastiche (and even pastiching Joyce is fairly difficult).  He spoke, famously, about the “scrupulous meanness” of the language in Dubliners which accounts for the intensity of emotional effect in the stories. When recasting An Encounter, I went for  the intensity of emotion – but the stinginess of language I found harder to achieve.

The rewriting of Joyce’s story has been a journey of rediscovery – looking at an overlooked story (overlooked by me, that is ) and finding a slow-release masterpiece. Now I can’t wait to see how my fellow writers – John Kelly, John Boyne, Donal Ryan, Peter Murphy, Elske Rahill, Oona Frawley, Eimear McBride, Pat McCabe and Sam Coll among others – have channelled Joyce.

Dubliners 100, edited by Tom Morris,  is published by Tramp Press on June 5th.