On a bright and blustery morning in February, I stepped out my front door and walked until I reached the north bank of the River Liffey, where I crossed a bridge and stopped in front of a dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island. The house stood a little back from the street, as though in quiet reproach of its surroundings, the only Georgian redbrick in a row of humbler buildings facing the river; it was flanked squatly on one side by a small car upholstery concern, and, on the other, by a large modern block of apartments. The windows of this dark gaunt house were opaque with brownish grime from the heavy traffic along the south quays, but in one of the dim street-level rooms I could make out the looming profile of a massive papier-mâché head, perhaps 3 feet high. The sheer slope of the nose, terminating in a trim gray mustache; the almost comic nobility of the chin; the gigantic fedora overmastering a high forehead: It was instantly apparent whom this cartoon head was intended to represent. Printed on the fan window over the front door were the words James Joyce House, and then, directly beneath these, “The Dead.”
The house was unlit and unoccupied. I looked down over the railings into the basement entrance, where there lay a heap of discarded items: the carcass of what seemed to be an old wooden dresser, a sodden mattress, a few plastic bags bulging with rubbish. I removed my phone from my pocket and took some photographs, and as I did so, a group of middle-aged Scandinavian tourists ambled past. Two men at the rear of the group noticed me and, as is the way of tourists, stopped to look up at what I was photographing. “James Joyce’s house,” said one of them, pointing up toward the fan window and misreading what was written there. His friend made a guttural noise of mild interest, and they both continued down along the river in the direction of the Guinness brewery. I briefly considered stopping them, to explain that this was not actually one of the 20 or so Dublin addresses Joyce had lived at, but the place in which he set “The Dead,” the greatest of his short stories, the story which closes Dubliners and which elevates the book to the level of the supreme artworks of the 20th century. This is the “dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island” where Gabriel Conroy’s elderly aunts Kate and Julia live, and in which they throw the party that provides the occasion for one of literature’s most powerfully sustained performances of narrative brilliance. Just behind that locked front door is where Gabriel stands in “a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase” at his wife, complacently admiring “the grace and mystery in her attitude” as she listens to another guest sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” unaware that she is thinking of a boy she once loved, a boy who died for his love of her before she ever knew her husband.
If you’re a person whose perception of the world is shaped by literature, Dublin can feel less like a place that James Joyce wrote about than a place that is about James Joyce’s writing. The city of his fiction exists in ghostly superimposition over the actual city, such as it is, and every street corner, every landmark, every fleetingly glimpsed stranger, can seem haunted by some Joycean revenant. If you’re already thinking about Joyce to begin with, Dublin will continually provide you with reasons to continue doing so. Joyce will not be escaped. He inheres in the city’s bones.
* * *
Near the start of his almost decade-long effort to see Dubliners into print, James Joyce wrote a remarkable letter to the London publisher Grant Richards, in which he explained his unwillingness to change his manuscript in response to Richards’ anxiety about its coarse language and references to sexual matters.
My 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 to be the centre of the paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its 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. It is not my fault 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.
Of all the sentences Joyce ever wrote, I think I might be most perversely fond of this last. For an Irish writer to inform an English publisher that, should he choose not to publish his debut collection of short stories, he will be personally responsible for impairing that writer’s country even more than it’s already been impaired by centuries of colonial oppression? That, to me, is both the greatest and worst elevator pitch in literary history: a kind of reckless masterpiece of emotional blackmail, encapsulating so much of Joyce’s arrogance and self-righteousness and outright grandiosity, all of which qualities were entirely validated by his greatness.
Joyce’s looking glass, nicely polished though it is, frames a grim reflection of life in the city around the turn of the last century. The Dublin of Dubliners (as distinct from the more vibrant and various setting of Ulysses) is a claustrophobic place, a place of entrapment and congenital disappointment, filled with frustrated people living thwarted lives. It is in every sense a small city. There is a particular airlessness to the trio of childhood stories that open the collection, a thick fug of corruption that seems to suffocate the spaces in the city the stories explore. “Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms,” the narrator of “Araby” tells us. On the opening page of the book, the narrator of “The Sisters,” recalling the paralyzing stroke that killed a priest with whom he had a peculiarly close relationship as a boy, notes: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.” This looking is the morbid business of the book itself, which often seems less a diagnosis than an autopsy.
Everyone in Dubliners is thinking about a way out, if not actively pursuing one; everyone is dreaming of some better version of himself in some better place. The stories are filled with vague conjurings of such better places—the Wild West in “An Encounter”; the hazily evoked Orient in “Araby”; Buenos Aires in “Eveline”; London and Paris in “A Little Cloud”—but what seem like possibilities of escape always turn out to be passages to deeper entrapment. The boys in “An Encounter” skip school for the day only to wind up being accosted in a field by a “queer old josser” who quizzes them about girlfriends before excusing himself momentarily, apparently to masturbate, and then returning to deliver an obsessional monologue on the pleasures of whipping young boys. In “Eveline” a young woman, trapped in miserable domesticity with her alcoholic father, is given an opportunity to flee for Argentina with a suitor, but then becomes overwhelmed by a desperate fear of drowning—in the ocean, in the uncertainty of his intentions, in the unknown depths of freedom itself.
Joyce himself went away: He fled Dublin in 1904 with his lover Nora Barnacle, as he was beginning to write the stories that would become Dubliners. Almost all of his major work was written in other European cities (in Trieste, in Rome, in Zurich, in Paris), and all of it was about the one he was from, because if you wanted to succeed, you had to leave—especially if success meant writing about that place in a way it had not been written about before. Joyce’s preferred narrative, and the one that has become the official version, was the narrative of exile, the story of his flight from Dublin because it was too morally and intellectually restrictive an environment that he could not pursue his work under the combined pressures of nationalism and Catholicism that bore down so heavily on the heads of Irish artists. “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight,” says Stephen Dedalus to a patriotic friend in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “You speak to me of nationality, language and religion. I will try to fly by those nets.” The name Dedalus might be the most significant thing about Joyce’s alter ego: The symbolism of self-creation and flight was central to his own personal mythology. This heroic narrative is compromised by certain more prosaic factors, as heroic narratives always are: The woman with whom he chose to spend his life was an uneducated chambermaid who would have been seen as beneath his social level, and, had he stayed in Dublin, he would have been under severe pressure to find gainful employment to support his financially blighted family.
Every city is an artifact, an accumulation of historical residues, but this feels especially true of Dublin. In some odd but fundamental sense, it is not an Irish city. It was founded by Vikings in the 10th century, as an estuary base from which to run their bloody operation on this dark western edge of Europe. The street names in my neighborhood—Viking Road, Sigurd Road, Ostman Place, Olaf Road, Norseman Road—are signposts to this past, but it is essentially invisible now, buried deep beneath the work of later colonists. The most reliable reminder of Dublin’s Norse origins is the Viking Splash Tour, a fleet of large open-topped amphibious vehicles that ferry horned-helmeted tourists from one site of historical interest to the next, exhorting them to bellow genially at passing pedestrians. It’s strange to think of groups of Scandinavian visitors, like those I encountered outside 15 Usher’s Island, taking this tour and happily caricaturing the fearsomeness of their ancestors in wet gear and cheap plastic headdress. History repeats itself, first as conquest, then as commerce.
The city that exists now, though, which in a physical sense is still recognizably the city in which Joyce’s characters live their lives, is inescapably an artifact of British empire. Almost all of our significant buildings—the houses of parliament, City Hall, the presidential residence, Trinity College, Dublin Castle, the major museums and theaters and hospitals and courthouses and hotels—were all built as part of a long-dismantled edifice of colonialism. Dublin is a repurposed city, in the way of all postcolonial capitals. It is haunted by the fact that we are going about our business in streets and buildings that were originally constructed for the purposes of our dispossession. Much of the north inner city, where I live, is characterized by an air of discontinued grandeur, as of a place that has not been able to keep itself in the style to which it was once accustomed. It is not quite that we are living in the ruins of the 18th century, but at certain times, in certain places, it can seem that way.
“How much is a plate of peas?” he asked.
“Three halfpence, sir,” said the girl.
“Bring me a plate of peas,” he said, “and a bottle of ginger beer.”
He finally meets again with Corley, and they stop at the corner of Ely Place and Baggot Street, where it is revealed that Corley has managed to convince the girl to steal from her employer. “Corey halted at the first lamp and stared grimly before him. Then with a grave gesture he extended a hand towards the light and, smiling, opened it slowly to the gaze of his disciple. A small gold coin shone in the palm.” Those same street lamps still line the streets, though that corner of Ely Place and Baggot Street is now the site of a more efficient means of extracting gold from Dublin’s wealthier citizens: a business with the almost parodically Celtic Tiger-ish name of Bespoke Estate Agents, which offers its customers “tailored property solutions.”
Every afternoon, when I go to pick up my son from child care, I walk up Constitution Hill, where I pass alongside the gardens of the King’s Inns—the gardens Little Chandler looks out on from his desk, whereupon “a gentle melancholy took possession of his soul.” If some contemporary incarnation of Little Chandler were to look up from that desk now, 100 years later, he would see, just across the street from those gardens, the large block of council flats outside of which, a few months back, a 46-year-old father of three was set upon by four young men who beat him with hammers and baseball bats and slashed him with blades for 10 minutes, for God knows what reason, as a group of children from the flats looked on. And if he crossed the street and looked down at the footpath that runs alongside this block of flats, right opposite the elegant Georgian prospect of the Inns, he would be able to make out a message scraped into the concrete, as though with the blade of a knife: the year 1992, the words “We killed” followed by some faded and indecipherable letters, and then the name “Anto Gannon.” Who the “we” refers to, whether the claim is a truthful one—none of these can be read in what is visible, but when I look down at this message, written into the raw material of the street, my mood always darkens for a moment, and I think of all the sadness and misery ingrained, both conspicuous and obscure, in the familiar urban texture.
* * *
Ireland’s circumstances have changed radically, and predominantly for the better, in the century since the publication of Dubliners. It is, for one thing, no longer a colonial backwater. In some important ways, you can imagine Joyce feeling just about OK with the way his city has turned out—and not merely because of the bridges named after him, the statues, the annual municipal celebrations of his work. For a while there, during the years of the so-called Celtic Tiger boom—the years during which I moved here to go to university—Dublin was a city to which people returned, having emigrated in the economically depressed ’80s and early ’90s, and it was a city to which people came from abroad to make livings and lives. But over the last few years, now that the money has mostly drained away, the place seems to have shrunk in upon itself, and it feels again like the small city, the irredeemably minor city, that it always was. Most of the friends I made in college and in the years immediately afterward have wound up leaving, often because they couldn’t make a living here, but in some cases because they just felt like getting out. The gravitational force exerted by London, in all its vastness and density, is as strong now as it ever was; like a lot of Dubliners in their 20s and 30s, I feel as though I have more friends living inside a few square miles of Hackney than I do in my own city.
Perhaps this is purely idiosyncratic, but I find it impossible these days to read the story “After the Race” as anything other than a prophetic allegory of Dublin’s trajectory through the Celtic Tiger years. It opens with a burst of energetic modernity, as a motor race illuminates the dark, broken labyrinth of the city’s streets: “At the crest of the hill at Inchicore sightseers had gathered in clumps to watch the cars careering homeward and through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth and industry. Now and again the clumps of people raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed.” The protagonist of the story is a young man named Jimmy Doyle, whose father has made some money in the butchering business and sent him to study in Cambridge for a term “to see a little life.” Doyle has returned to Dublin to take part in the race, along with the coterie of cosmopolitan friends he has taken up with, all of whom are vastly more wealthy than himself.
For the first two-thirds of its length, the story is kept aloft by the vaguely hysterical buoyancy of Doyle’s delight in being seen in his hometown with his wealthy new European friends. But he is clearly the junior partner in this international group; relegated to the rear seat of the car, he has to strain forward to catch the suave banter of the two Frenchmen up front. We see Dublin through a combination of Jimmy’s pride and Joyce’s irony. “That night the city wore the mask of a capital. The five young men strolled along Stephen’s Green in a faint cloud of aromatic smoke. They talked loudly and gaily and their cloaks dangled from their shoulders. The people made way for them.” There is a fancy dinner, and then drinks and a card game out in Dublin Bay, on a yacht owned by an American acquaintance of one of the group. The glamour of the day, the proximity of all that suave old transatlantic money, goes to poor Jimmy’s head, and he drinks more than he should, and gambles far beyond his means. By dawn, he owes more money to his wealthy companions than he can calculate, and the effect of the booze is beginning to give way to a throbbing headache: “He knew that he would regret in the morning but at present he was glad of the rest, glad of the dark stupor that would cover his folly.” As the story ends, Jimmy is consciously coming into the patrimony of his Irishness: an unsettled debt and an outstanding hangover.
In almost all the stories in Dubliners, there are people who drink in order to numb themselves, to assuage the frustration of their lives in their poor stunted houses, in this city where there is nothing to be done. Along with the odor of ashpits and old weeds and offal, a stale reek of booze rises off the pages of this book. Dublin’s veins and arteries are still awash with alcohol, which we know to be a sickness, but celebrate anyway as a kind of cultural lifeblood. If there is a dead Dubliner who mounts anything like a serious challenge to Joyce’s title of the city’s tutelary spirit, it’s Arthur Guinness, who has lately been granted, by his parent company Diageo,his own feast day. Around where I live, right across the river from the Guinness brewery, I can rarely walk for more than a few feet without having to step over a smashed vodka bottle or a crushed beer can. As I write this, I have just come back from lunch, where I sat in a restaurant beside the tram tracks and watched through the window as a young and dramatically shitfaced man staggered alongside the tracks under the presumably watchful gaze of a police officer stopped at a red light. I thought of “A Painful Case,” in which Mr. James Duffy reads in the evening paper about the death of a former lover, a married woman, who was run over by a train, apparently in a state of some inebriation.
Joyce’s relationship to that other Irish inheritance, Catholicism, was a famously complicated one; he loathed the church’s influence over Irish society, the terrible blunt insistence with which it strangulated the life forces of art and sexuality and intellectual independence. There’s something off about that old priest in “The Sisters,” about his relationship with the young boy—something stultifying and contaminating. We never really get a sense of the exact nature of that contamination, which makes it all the more insidious, and all the more suggestive of the Catholic church’s immobilizing and corrupting influence on Irish society as a whole. But Joyce was in many important ways a Catholic writer, in the sense that his work—in both its thematic terrain and its philosophical navigations—is inseparable from his Jesuit schooling. As his biographer Ellmann puts it, “The majesty of the church excited him and never left him.”
A century later, Ireland’s vexed relationship with its dominant religion seems a little like Joyce’s. As a country, it mostly feels as though we’ve broken free of the enervating influence of authoritarian Catholicism that perverted Irish culture since the formation of the state. Increased wealth, education, the influence of the European Union, and above all a relentless cascade of revelations about the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy: All of this has, in recent decades, weakened the church’s grip over what was once more or less a functioning theocracy. Ireland’s church attendance rates have dropped dramatically since the 1990s, and in 2012 an international Gallup pollplaced Ireland as one of the world’s least religious countries. And yet the structure is still there, underpinning the edifice of public life. In late 2012, when the streets of Dublin were filled with protests against our government’s failure to clearly legislate for abortion in the case of threats to pregnant women’s lives, I found myself thinking often of James Joyce, and the things he wrote about this country. This public rage had been caused by the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who had died in a hospital in Galway—a hospital which was, like most of our public hospitals, explicitly Catholic in its ethos. Even though she was miscarrying, and even though she and her husband repeatedly asked that she be given an abortion, she was turned down because, as a midwife explained to them, “This is a Catholic country.” This phrase, in its blank and terrible irony, seemed to haunt Ireland for a long time, and even now I can’t hear it without thinking of Simon Dedalus’ dire pronouncement in A Portrait that “We are an unfortunate priest-ridden race and always were and always will be till the end of the chapter.” As modern and liberal a place as Ireland mostly feels, there are moments when the deadly work of the old paralysis can still be seen, and when the reflection of Joyce’s nicely-polished looking glass still retains a portion of its grim accuracy.
* * *
I have said that it is maddening at times, how deeply Joyce’s image is imprinted on Dublin, but it’s hard to imagine the place without his presence. It’s most unavoidable, of course, on June 16 every year. On this day, Bloomsday, the city lays on a varied program of events and happenings and readings and walking tours; if on any other day of the year you might manage to ignore Joyce, on this day he is nonnegotiable. You see women in voluminous Edwardian dress, middle-aged men in ill-fitting white seersucker and straw boat hats, clusters of gussied-up Ulysses enthusiasts standing around nibbling Gorgonzola sandwiches in tribute to the gustatory preferences of Mr. Leopold Bloom. All over the city, in locations that feature in the novel—the National Library, Sandymount Strand, Glasnevin Cemetery, all largely unchanged since Joyce’s time—people read the passages that pertain to those places. The whole merry rigmarole happens on this date because Joyce set his book not just on “a summer’s day,” but on this particular one. And he did so in order to commemorate his first date with Nora, rescheduled from June 14, the evening they walked together to Ringsend and, as he made a point of reminding her in one of his letters, “you slid your hand down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.”
And so it is that every June 16, the city of Dublin, the capital of the unfortunate priest-ridden state that refused to repatriate Joyce’s profane body after his death, commemorates with all the convivial pomp of a religious festival or a historical reconstruction the occasion of the furtive outdoor handjob he later referred to as a sacrament. This can only really be seen as a measure of the wicked genius of James Joyce, whom the chorus girls of Zurich would later come to know as “Herr Satan.”
And I can’t tell you how weird it is to me, how beautiful in a way, that the city I live in—that I, like most Dubliners, love and deplore, and that I can’t stop thinking about and don’t know how to write about—has an annual festival that, whether it wants to admit it or not, marks the occasion of a specific ejaculation. Because it seems to me to encapsulate with a sort of dreamlike accuracy the nature of the relationship between this city and its most famously wayward son, which was one of frustrated love. Part of his great and endless gift to his home was the creative act of sinning against it, of transgressing against the narrowness and piety of its poor stunted houses. He showed Dublin to itself and to the world, but he also made it what it is: for better or worse, Joyce’s city.