Monday, June 16, 2014

A century of brilliant Irish words

If you consider "Dubliners" the greatest short-story collection in the English language -- as I do --- you must regret not being in New York City tonight. Symphony Space will hold its 33rd Bloomsday, an annual tribute to the language of Irish author James Joyce.

The day often commemorates "Ulysses," the novel about Leopold Bloom that takes place on June 16, 1904. (That's the day Joyce had his first outing with Nora Barnacle, whom he'd eventually marry.) This year, though, it's devoted to "Dubliners," a collection of 15 stories that came out 100 years ago this month.

The last and longest of those, "The Dead," became a movie directed by John Huston just before his death in 1987. (His son Tony wrote it; his daughter Anjelica starred in it.) Here's the final scene of that film, in which a man (played by Donal McCann) realizes his marriage and career have begun to slip away from him, perhaps forever:

The performers reading "Dubliners" at Symphony Space won't act it out. They'll simply let his beautiful, pungent, funny language roll along and speak for itself. Joyce was born into the middle class in that Irish capital and set the stories among the children and adults he knew so well.

Before publishing it at 32, he was an obscure poet whose one volume ("Chamber Music") had come out seven years earlier. "Dubliners" won critical approval, prompting him to finish "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in 1916. More poems, the play "Exiles" and the novels "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" followed over the next 23 years.

"Dubliners" remains the easiest of the prose works to read; Joyce hadn't yet begun to experiment with language or deconstruct characters, and the settings are almost all realistic. Yet his insight into peoples' fears, sadness, comic self-importance, loneliness and struggles to be noticed was already keen. If you don't know this book, don't reach the 101st Bloomsday without making its acquaintance.