‘An Encounter’ by James Joyce

The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break out of the weariness of school life for one day at least.

 The narrator is either a precociously literate schoolboy or an older man recalling an earlier time – it’s hard to tell. He describes “a day’s miching” with another boy, Mahoney, in which the pair bunk off together, walking along the quays, eating currant buns and enjoying “the spectacle of Dublin’s commerce”. They cross the Liffey by ferryboat and head for The Pigeon House (with it implications of flight), roaming around the impoverished backstreets of Ringsend.

As the day grows sultry they feast on biscuits and chocolate and bottles of raspberry lemonade. Too tired to reach their destination they rest in a field where they are approached by an old man “shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black”, a Beckettian tramp-like figure with a good accent who embarks on a series of unsettling monologues, first and innocuously about literature, then about “girls”.

He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit.
Like a priest reciting the liturgy? After this eerie monologue he retreats to the end of the field. The narrator does not see what happens next, but his companion Mahoney does:
“I say! Look what he’s doing!”
As I neither answered nor raised my eyes, Mahony exclaimed again:
“I say . . . He’s a queer old josser!”
 Most readers will assume the old man is masturbating, as Bloom does on Sandymount Strand in Ulysses, although on first reading the story I assumed he was either urinating or defecating. Surely, I thought, if he’d actually been wanking the boys would have fled, perhaps hurling insults and rocks. It’s left to the reader to imagine the scene. Perhaps he’s praying.

(In his version of the real-life encounter, Joyce’s brother Stanislaus calls the man a ‘juggins’ (a simple-minded or gullible person, a simpleton; the equivalent American term might be ‘doofus). Many years ago an English professor told me that ‘josser’ was once a slang term for God, which raises not a few questions. It’s a claim I’ve never been able to verify but am happy to pass on for your consideration. If the episode offers any epiphany, or sudden spiritual illumination, it is a particularly downbeat one.)

Fourteen other short stories make up Dubliners – the greatest of all short story collections, each exploring themes of loss, inertia, indecision and flight. They were published when the author was still in his early twenties. You could read one a day for two weeks.

From Dubliners, first published 1914. Read it online here. Chosen by David Collard: read David’s Personal Anthology here

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