‘Clay’ by James Joyce

My next two stories are undoubtedly short stories in the classic tradition. They are short, in prose, about a single main character or event. They ‘cristallize’, in another sense: they are heart-rending vignettes, in a small space. One is from James Joyce’s Dubliners, ‘Clay’ (First published 1914; read here in Penguin Popular Classics 1996, pp. 110-18). The other is from Vladimir Nabokov’s A Russian Beauty. They are intimately connected in that, in each case, the protagonist does not understand that a personal disaster hangs over her, while the people around her do. But the way this is conveyed in the two stories is utterly different. 
In Joyce’s ‘Clay’, the protagonist Maria, a tiny person with a lowly job in a laundry, is going to visit her brother Joe and his family for the evening of Hallow-e’en. Maria buys treats for Joe’s children on the way to his house: she is a generous soul whom everyone loves – and pities, though this she is unaware of. They all play a Hallow-e’en game which involves being blind-folded, and choosing a saucer, by touch alone. When Maria’s turn comes, she picks a saucer with something soft and wet on it. There is an embarrassed silence, and the bigger girls are ticked off severely, and told to throw it out. The only clue as to what this might have been, and its traditional significance, is in the title of the story. Then the company urge Maria to sing: she sings “I dreamt that I dwelled in marble halls”, repeating one verse by mistake, though no-one points this out. Her brother Joe, to whom she had been a little mother when they were young, is so moved that his eyes fill up with tears, and “he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was”. The pathos of an impending death is completely down-played.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. 

‘A Painful Case’ by James Joyce

I first read Dubliners in school, so I must have been about 14 or 15; it was a cheap paperback with some chintzy illustrations in it, and every week we went through the stories in great detail. On reflection, this was one of my first proper experiences of close reading, and as the weeks went by, I got more and more absorbed in the lives of these characters. I latched on to that volta of disappointment that Joyce detonates in each story, often a depiction of the rising and falling of an evening which begins in hope and ends in the revelation of an unflinching reflection of oneself. I could have picked any of these stories, but I chose ‘A Painful Case’, a story of a man who lives at something of a distance from himself, because of its clarity and its ruthless pity. The opening sketch, which describes Mr Duffy’s “odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense”, is as perfect a distillation of character as I’ve read. But the real dynamite in this story is the closing sequence, in which Duffy stands purgatorial in the evening above Dublin, his lover abandoned and dead by his own neglect, the copulating couples below him wishing him gone, and the wormlike train winding its way out of his sight. Even then, in the nearest moment that he comes to realisation, he stands at a protective distance from himself; his thoughts remain behind the barrier of “he felt”; his epiphany is complete but abstract, on the other side of the glass. The final sentence – “He felt that he was alone” – is devastating.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. Available to read online here

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

I feel a bit embarrassed that I have included this story in my list, kind of like cheating an exam. All you need to know is that I read this story many times throughout the years, in Chinese, in English, in Chengdu, in Dublin. 
And it was in Dublin where I began to hear all the voices in the story and it was in Dublin, shortly after my son was born, I was pinned on the bed by the sleeping baby on my chest and ended up rereading the whole story. I cried when I read out, in a muted voice, the ending of the story again and again. That day, through the repetition, I saw something profound – too profound that I knew right away that I would never be able to express it with words. 

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Published in the Melville House Press Art of the Novella series. Available online including here

‘Grace’ by James Joyce

The half-informed discussion of Catholic doctrine and Vatican politics among these worldly businessmen always reminds me of my father, who was born in 1920, and took over the family business aged 17. As a young Irish wannabee writer in England I felt possessive about Joyce, but of course I’d never read him until I crossed the water. What struck me most when I finally did was a vision of the very world I was trying to turn my back on, rendered in loving detail without overt critique or comment, at the centre of an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature. It had never occurred to me that this sort of chat could be worth writing down, that these men would offer a valid subject for fiction; in other words, that the stuff I already had might be all I needed. That’s a lesson I’m still struggling to bring to my own writing.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. Available to read online here

Any story in Dubliners by James Joyce

As staggering as Ulysses is, for me, this is Joyce’s masterpiece. The reason I include Dubliners is that it seems to age as you do. Somehow it’s not the same book I read as a teenager. Each time I return to it, a different story will come to the fore, resonating with whatever I’ve been going through. I feel like, at different times, I have been some of these characters, which is not very edifying. It’s quite a haunting experience at times but I keep coming back because it’s as brutally honest and unforgiving as a mirror. 
In recent years, I’ve been really blown away by Wendy Erskine’s short stories. She’s a very different writer to Joyce (her writing is hilarious for one thing) but they share a number of traits – she has an incredible ear for language and eye for revelatory details, what would be called epiphanies I guess in Joyce’s case, and an unsentimental quality, which I think is quite radical these days. I spend a lot of time reading writers like Borges and Calvino, getting lost in labyrinths and bestiaries or whatever, and sometimes it’s cleansing to return to a world, exposed with all its flaws, that is so vividly recognisable and inhabitable. Dubliners is over a hundred years old but it’s as relevant today or tomorrow as it was then. Sometimes there is a great kindness in looking in an unflinching way at how life is actually lived, and Dubliners does that from a multitude of angles. As with Erskine’s work, there is a very distinct vernacular but also an acute awareness of the frailties, contradictions and complexities of human beings that will always be prescient.  

First published by Grant Richards, 1914. Available in multiple print editions, also to read online at Project Gutenberg here

‘Araby’ by James Joyce


I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play…

The narrator of Joyce’s ‘Araby’ is neither named nor aged, but going from his preoccupations (caught somewhere between enjoying the company of his schoolboy friends and longing for the company of a local girl whose name “was like a summons to all my foolish blood”) I think it’s fair to say that adolescent hormones are starting to simmer. When the object of his affections finally deigns to actually speak to him (flirtatiously bemoaning the fact that she will not be able to attend the local Araby bazaar) the narrator is determined to go in her stead and bring her back a gift. And so the visit to the Araby becomes an idee fixe in his young mind: a quest to win the girl’s love and progress on to the next stage in his development. But, as we have already seen in Greene’s ‘The Basement Room’ and Plath’s ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit’ the adult world is too vast and complex to accommodate the idealisations of non-adults. And when the narrator’s adolescent epiphany comes, it is crushing.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards Ltd, 1914. available now in numerous print editions and online at The Literature Network

‘Araby’ by James Joyce

“The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.” 

Along with the two subsequent stories in my personal anthology, ‘Araby’ is one of the great evocations of boyhood. Though all the stories from Dubliners are dazzlers, there’s something particularly special about this brief encounter with a boy and the nameless object of his desire. We know her only as “Mangan’s sister,” though the narrator admits that “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” Poignantly, Joyce’s epiphanic revelation appears here not as some illuminating romantic disclosure, but as disillusionment in tented darkness, a crisis of maturity metastasized. 

First published in Joyce’s collection Dubliners, 1914, Grant Richards Ltd., available now in numerous print editions and online at The Literature Network

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

I remember it so well. I was a student in Oxford – lonely, bored, disappointed. I had thought of Oxford as the Promised Land but Waugh’s “low door in the wall” leading to that “enchanted garden … not overlooked by any window” had failed to reveal itself to me. One evening I wandered into the cinema on Walton Street. They were showing a film called ‘The Dead.’ I had no idea about the film, I just wanted somewhere warm to sit for an hour, and a few moments of oblivion. But immediately the film started, I was captured. By the end of it I was crying and I didn’t stop crying for hours. I’m not the kind of person who cries in films. Immediately, I found a copy of Dubliners and read the story. I still think it is perhaps the greatest short story ever written. 

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Published in the Melville House Press Art of the Novella series. Available online including here

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

Re-reading ‘The Dead’ – it’s as vibrant as ever with a wonderful creation of a party – handling so many characters – unusual in conventions taught about the short story, where such a number might be considered a challenge. The story is about the growing awareness of Gabriel not only of his wife Gretta being drawn to her own past, the loss of an earlier love, a past and world he cannot be part of, but is also actively rejecting. There is a lack in him – such a contrast to the abundance of food the aunts have prepared. Despite Gretta coming from the west of Ireland, he is reluctant to visit there. He is ‘modern’ – not to be drawn, as are other visitors seeking the Gaelic twilight. But his wife’s connection is deeper. Gretta emerges out of the story, out of the crowd at the party, delineated as her own person. She turns his response on its head. I can’t help but wonder if Joyce ever visited the west, especially the area near Galway known as Joyce’s country – if he matched my ventures there.

First published in Dubliners, First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Widely available online, including here

‘Eveline’ by James Joyce

Scholars of Joyce might discuss, at length, his contribution to modernist literature, his imitable narrative style and uncompromising prose, but I chose ‘Eveline’ simply because it was the first short story that ever made me cry. 

Eveline is nineteen and faced with the dilemma of eloping to Buenos Aires with her lover Frank, or remaining in Dublin, working in The Stores and taking care of her abusive father. Joyce examines the danger of sentimental reminiscence. When Eveline hears a street organ playing, she is reminded of a promise to her mother, “to keep the home together as long as she could” followed by a swift bout of panic that her life will be as pitiful as her mothers: “Escape! She must escape!”

We are hopeful for Eveline until the last moments, when her fear of what she truly desires becomes too much to bear and instead she commits her to a lifetime of drudgery. Eveline is left “gripping both hands to the iron railings” on the dock, whilst Frank is swept away in the crowds. 

Joyce’s stories are buoyed by his imitable attention to detail and his incredible capacity to inject poignancy and self-reflection into his uncompromising social commentaries on Dublin. 

First published in Irish Homestead, 2014. Collected in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

This story could be used in support of the argument that ‘Less is More’. I’ve read both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Yet, with the possible exception of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, all those thousands of words have left remarkably little trace. Here Joyce evokes a Dublin party in which small and large divisions between the guests become apparent as the evening progresses. But there’s an unexpected – and wonderful – shift at the end, when the main character realises what everybody holds in common. In time all of them will be welcomed by very different hosts.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Available online including here

‘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

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

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

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

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)