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
Let this personal anthology be taken as proof that there are far too many heart-horrifyingly good short story writers out there. In a dozen stories, you can, of course, only scrape the surface; dip a foot, as it were, amid a dozen specimens of the species. Lord knows, and now you know, too, that some extraordinary things have slipped by me. I would name all the wonders if I could: William Maxwell, Mavis Gallant, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Anne Enright, Helen Simpson’s ‘Up at a Villa’ and… all that rest. For now, though, the end must be the incontrovertible end to Dubliners by James Joyce. Not only because of the story, but because, a couple of years ago, I heard the actor Aidan Gillen read the story in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, attached to Shakespeare’s Globe, and it was then that the wonder of thing struck me anew. Some stories are glimpses. ‘The Dead’ is not, of course. Mr Gillen made it mesmerising. The story and the performance combined perfectly. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.
From Dubliners. Available to read here
Saying that this story is your favourite ever is a bit like saying the Mona Lisa is your favourite painting or Chanel No. 5 your favourite perfume, but who cares. The final story in my collection, Smoked Meat, is a homage to ‘The Dead’. The last lines are, for me, the most beautiful ever written in literature: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.
From Dubliners (first published 1914; it can be read here)