Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Joyce casts a long shadow. Many aspects of his character and genius are beyond emulation. I envy him his brilliantly retentive memory, his verbal sorcery, his youthful courage, and also his passion for experimentation, for creating new moulds. What other writer has reinvented the form of the novel as Joyce did? Contemporary literature seems drab and safe, by comparison with that of the 1920s. Writers look conservative, timid.
On the other hand, who would want to be like Joyce the man? Apparently he had his charm – he was a witty talker, an inspiring teacher. But so full of self importance. ‘I will be the new d’Annunzio’ he told an Italian friend, before he had published even his first collection of stories (according to Ellman). His ambition seems to have been to prove that he was the best writer in the world. For him, literature was an Olympic Games tournament, and he was out to be the world champ.
He sounds like a real pain.
Every writer wants to be excellent, but surely writing is not about winning a race? In spite of what you might infer from all the prizes, literature is a dialogue between books, between writers. We know perfectly well that there isn’t one winner, one great novel that holds the key. There are many ways to put skin on a story. There are thousands of great novels, great short stories.
Joyce’s are of course among them.
Part of my school was in the house where Leopold and Molly Bloom lived. The nun who taught us English referred to the literary associations of the building with mild exaperation. She was impatient with the Joyce industry before it had even started. Still, she didn’t discourage us from reading this troublesome man, whose works had not made it onto the school syllabus, not even into the ground-breaking Exploring English Part One, in 1970 (perhaps it was just a copyright thing?) That’s when I bought my first copy of Dubliners. I didn’t notice that it was about a people in a state of emotional and intellectural paralysis. Rather it confirmed my view that my city, just as I suspected, was the centre of the world, that every little thing that happened there was of universal significance, and that the names of its streets, roads, lanes were poetic, and possessed of a magical power, like spells or incantations. ‘North Richmond Street was blind’ was a line I love and quoted often, to myself, on the bus. I would have been happier if Joyce had used more locations closer to my home – his Dubliners are mostly northsiders. But their streets were familiar since my school was over there, on Eccles Street, right in the Joyce heartland. I lived – or at least went to school – in a great book.
Otherwise, I was not conscious of any impact on me as a writer by Joyce. Or by any writer (there were more likely contenders for the role of ‘literary influences’ on me, including Enid Blyton). I was starting out, and I knew I was different from every other writer on earth. If you believed otherwise, at the age of sixteen, you wouldn’t want to do it at all.
But there’s plenty you don’t know when you’re sixteen, and it is the influence you’re unaware of that’s most important, the template that you inherit as inevitably as you inherit the way you walk or talk, your language and your dialect. When I started writing I believed I was writing a spontaneous short story, my own, uninfluenced by anyone; I knew I didn’t want to write like Frank O’Connor, by which I meant, I didn’t want to write stories about large noisy families in Cork, or civil war executions. I imagine this was a standard view, for writers born in the 1950s. Frank O’Connor was the writer of the parents’ generation, so, like their wallpaper, he had to be repudiated. I didn’t say ‘I want to write stories like the stories in Dubliners’, but that’s what I did. I spoke the English of Lower Rathmines and I wrote the short story of Lower Drumcondra. ‘The Dead’. The relatively plotless, epiphanic short story, relying as much on imagery as narrative, more like a poem than a story. Something, apparently rather slight, rather painful, happens to someone, and that someone then experiences a moment of insight – the veil is lifted off reality to reveal a deeper truth. That’s the general idea. That was the literary dialect of my time and place, and of many other places as well.
Chekhov usually takes the mantel of father of the modern short story, but Joyce’s stories – especially ‘The Dead’ – have a tighter architecture than Chekhov’s, and Joyce is the begetter of the modern Irish story. Mary Lavin was influenced by him in some of her best, most minimal, pieces, such as ‘A Cup of Tea.’ John McGahern. All the writers in David Marcus’s ‘New Irish Writing’ were his fervent disciples, wittingly or not. Now, almost a hundred years after Dubliners was published, there is a flexible attitude to stories.
Anything goes, if it works, as the democratization of literature which began about two centuries ago gathers ever more speed. But nothing has ousted the Joycean model. Writers everwhere are indebted to him, even if they’ve never read him, because he showed the twentieth century how to write fiction for grown ups.Éilís Ní Dhuibhne-Almquist is a novelist and short story writer who writes in both Irish and English. She is Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at UCD. Her most recent publications include Fox, Swallow Scarecrow, Dordán and Snobs, Dogs and Scobies.