On the last page of each of James Joyce's novels, the reader will notice a kind of postscript listing several cities: Dublin, Trieste, Zurich, Paris. These are the places in which Joyce wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Like his literary alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus, Joyce fashioned wings and, in 1904, flew free of Ireland's paralyzing nets of nationality, language, and religion; after a fourth visit to the old sod in 1912, he would never return, living in self-imposed exile.
As cosmopolitan a life as he led, Joyce never got away from his native city because every day in his mind he visited Dublin, the setting of everything he would ever write. After Nora Barnacle, his companion and eventual wife, the city of Dublin was Joyce's lifelong love.
In his first book, the magnificent short story collection Dubliners, Joyce had some tough love for his hometown. In a letter to the collection's eventual publisher, Grant Richards, in May 1906, Joyce described his purpose in writing the stories:
My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene since that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under its four aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The stories are arranged in this order. I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform, whatever he has seen and heard.
Joyce was engaged in what would be a very long struggle to see all his stories in print, as well as limit editorial changes to their content. So resolute was Joyce, he went on to warn the London-based publisher, "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."
Fifteen publishers and nearly a decade after writing the stories, Joyce succeeded in giving his countrymen a remedial dose of their reflection; 2014 marks the centenary of the publication of Dubliners.
If Joyce held a literary mirror of "scrupulous meanness" to Ireland it was because that was precisely what he saw. Through this unflinching lens, the fifteen stories of Dubliners take the reader on a moral safari, poetically bagging choice specimens of paralysis along the way: sexual perversion, pettiness, poverty, intellectual cowardice, inebriation, child abuse, the debilitating weight of life under the dual yokes of English rule and the Catholic Church.
Joyce finds the malady at every level of society and on either side of the Liffey, the river which horizontally bisects Dublin. Cataloging a cultural problem, he inadvertently mapped his city. Here is a list of streets (and a few neighborhoods) mentioned in Dubliners by name: (south side) Baggot St., Dame St., Duke St., Ely Place, Eustace St., Fleet St., George's St., Grafton St., Hume St., Merrion St., Naas Road, Nassau St., Poolbeg St., Ringsend, Shelbourne Road, Stephen's Green, Sydney Parade Station, Usher's Island, Westland Row, Westmoreland St., Wicklow St., and Winetavern St.; Grattan Bridge; (north side) Buckingham St., Capel St., Chapelizod, Dorset St., Drumcondra, Gardiner St., the Glasnevin road, Great Britain St. (later re-named Parnell St.), Hardwicke St., Henrietta St., Henry St., Inns Quay, North Richmond St., North Strand Road, the North Wall, and Rutland Square (later re-named Parnell Square.)
The man also wrote Dubliners with a scrupulous geographical knowledge which belies to some degree the stern errand behind the stories. You'd almost get the impression from such an atlas-like summoning of streets that the guy actually loved his city.
The setting of Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, is Dublin once again, though a great deal of the action occurs inside the head of its protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, a.k.a. James Joyce. One of the key locations is Joyce's alma mater, University College, Dublin. It is here where Stephen has a now famous exchange with a college acquaintance, a budding young nationalist named Davin, in which he tells him: "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."
What often goes forgotten in the glow of Stephen's romantic proclamation is his rhetorical follow-up. When Davin claims he can't follow Stephen's highfalutin ideas, Stephen lets him have it with this one: "Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow."
Well roared, young artificer! In that devastating remark, you can feel the bite of the same blade with which Joyce carved up his Dubliners.
By the time Joyce begins his masterpiece, Ulysses, he has changed his approach and his attitude. Where "scrupulous meanness" animates the stories of Dubliners and rarefied artistic aloofness pervades A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, published in 1922, brims with laughter and love. Suddenly, Dublin doesn't look so bleak.
As is now well known, all the action in Ulysses takes place on one day, June 16, 1904, the day in which Joyce had his first date with Nora Barnacle.
As if to mirror the book's sunnier disposition, the scenes of Ulysses seem airier, brighter. In Dubliners, lamps burn redly in the murky air and the palace of the Four Courts stands out menacingly against the heavy sky ["The Dead"]; darkness, accompanied by a thick fog, gains upon the dusk of February ["Counterparts"]; in the short days of winter dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners and when we met in the street the houses had grown sombre ["Araby"]. In Ulysses, even upon the shoulders of an anti-Semite and hypocrite like Mr. Deasy, "through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins."
To speak in cinematic terms, the "camerawork" of Joyce's short stories and first novel are tight-in shots that lend a claustrophobic effect; Ulysses features refreshingly panoramic vistas, beginning with its airy opening shot, the view of the bowl of Dublin Bay atop the ramparts of the Martello tower at Sandycove beach. A little later, Stephen ponders the "ineluctable modality of the visible" while walking along the wide expanse of Sandymount Strand. And in the book's bravura of a last chapter, Molly Bloom conjures both the minutiae of her day and treasured details of her life in a sweeping survey made possible by Joyce's masterful stream-of-consciousness.
Ulysses was the greatest novel of the 20th century and remains a strong candidate for greatest novel of all time (it gets my vote.) If Joyce cut his fellow Dubliners down to size in his short stories, he exalts them and their city–his city–in Ulysses.
Read Ulysses, again and again–what more can I say?
In Finnegans Wake, the rabbit hole of portmanteau words and puns-within-puns down which Joyce spent the last 17 years of his life, the setting is ostensibly Dublin (or Joyce dreaming of Dublin). The River Liffey figures prominently, even as a character.
Alas, Finnegans Wake always reminds me of the composer John Cage; avant-garde proponents will tout his supposedly innovative genius, but when it comes time to actually listen to some music, they want to hear The Beatles just like everyone else.
One of the characters in the short story "A Little Cloud" utters the phrase "dear dirty Dublin" (Joyce returns to this coinage more playfully in Ulysses). Joyce's punning use of "dear" may be lost on many American ears; in Ireland, the word "dear" is more often used to denote "expensive" than "cherished." Nevertheless, whether sipping coffee in Trieste's Caffè San Marco or dining at Fouquet's in Paris or downing yet another glass of Fendant in Zurich's Kronenhalle Restaurant, Joyce deeply cherished the memory of his city–Dublin's smells and sounds and sights and textures, the varied accents of its citizens and its deep, often tragic layers of history. Even its paralysis.
Joyce once quipped that if Dublin was razed it could be reconstructed in detail using only his books. That wasn't a boast, that was love.