I first read this book about 25 years’ ago but decided to read it again because I was spending 4 days in Trieste, where Joyce lived for 16 years and wrote this book as well as several chapters of Ulysses (which I am now enthused to attempt again – it is the only book I have failed to finish, twice. And the charming and enthusiastic curator of the James Joyce Museum in Trieste demanded that I do so. Interestingly, Joyce’s friend in his Trieste years, the Italian writer Italo Svevo, was one of the inspirations for the character of Leopold Bloom).
Reading Dubliners in Trieste was an absolute joy from start to finish. The stories, all related in various ways and all echoing the same themes, are haunting and beautiful. The language is poetic but superficially functional. The characters are all oppressed, disappointed and yearning for something greater and more expansive. This seems to reflect Joyce’s view of Ireland as a provincial, limited place and he brilliantly captures the pettiness and mean-mindedness of the social conventions within which the characters pursue their lives and dreams. He went to Trieste originally to work as a teacher but living in that multinational and multicultural city, at the crossroads of Europe, must have played a big part in developing his internationalist sensibilities. In fact, references to other parts of Europe abound in the book, either in the pretensions of Bovary-esque characters or in the exoticism of real, live French people.
A single example of his delicious technique: in ‘A Painful Case’, the repressed and emotionally stunted Mr Duffy reflects on how he is an ‘outcast from life’s feast’. But Joyce then repeats the phrase in the next sentence, breaking a rule of style but to telling effect.
The most famous story, and the climax of the book, is ‘The Dead’, when a regular seasonal party is described in elegaic terms, summoning up questions about the nature of nationalism, the role of memory in love and the depth of yearning that a soul can muster.
A wonderful, satisfying book, that really stays with you.