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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

DUBLINERS, by James Joyce: "An Encounter"

The problem with high expectations and deeply layered writing is that the simple enjoyment of reading the surface story is often lost.  Not so with "An Encounter."  Reading it was easy, quick, and enjoyable; and not until I reached the last two paragraphs or so did I remember that I was dealing with an author who doesn't write with entertainment at top priority.  In fact it's evidently quite possible that Joyce didn't write for readers' enjoyment at all.  His eventual  publisher even whined that Joyce never wrote anything simple, direct, and fun.  Maybe "An Encounter" fooled the publisher, too, at least until those last paragraphs.  It's the second read-through that permits--encourages, even frustratingly--a second and third guess of every single detail: "Does that mean something?  What about that?  Could even that mean something?"

Basically, "An Encounter" is about a boy, the narrator, who is motivated by stories of the Wild West, brought to his attention by one of his friend's older brother, to skip school in the name of adventure, since adventure cannot be found anywhere but abroad.  Apparently, the docks and the "pigeon house" are adequately abroad.  The friend and another make the plan to leave, each planting a lie, or excuse, through someone else--Mahoney (friend no.2) with his obliging older sister, and Dillon with his likely less indulgent older brother; (we don't have information on how the narrator secures his alibi) --the following morning.

The narrator sleeps badly and so arrives early; Mahoney turns up shortly thereafter; Dillon never shows.  His brother--bent on the clergy--clearly didn't post the lie to the Fathers of the boys' Catholic school.  Mahoney's big sister, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind engaging in the assistance of sibling vagrancy, which likely levels the young lady right up there with the fantastic "unkempt fierce and beautiful girls" of the narrator's preferred American detective stories, while the older Dillon, I'm guessing, is posting up a personal preference of Joyce's against the Catholic church.  By contrast to the restrictions of the two Dillons, Mahoney, who by appearance is Protestant, is entirely free, even wreckless, which independence is caste as beautiful, and the narrator clearly envies him and his ability to find that mysterious American adventure.  In short: Dillons = Catholic and imprisoned; Mahoney = Protestant and free.  It is the narrator who seems to be sitting the fence.

When toward the end of their day away they meet the green-eyed man--a wandering pervert--in the field by the harbor, the narrator pursues an intent of courtesy.  Supporting his insecurities while sitting and talking, he boasts of reading three authors the man mentions, though he knows essentially nothing about them.  The man is enjoying himself and asks about Lord Lytton; the narrator appears not to understand why it is that young boys should not read Lord Lytton.  Mahoney, on the other hand, doesn't care what the queer old man thinks, and jumps up to chase a cat.

The boys succeed, it seems, in finding their adventure, despite the quick passage of time and its preclusion of reaching the pigeon house.  I believe there's more to the chasing of the girls, the chivalrous local boys who defend them; the dock workers, the adjectives around the food, and so forth; but I don't know what it is yet.  The telling moment of the story, however--at least for me, comes in the moment at the very end when the narrator jumps up and hollers, "Murphy!" hoping to escape the old man, and using the code name he assigned Mahoney in interested of escaping potential pursuance by the pervert.

We know that Joyce isn't thrilled with his city or country.  Perhaps the story would show a more favorable light on the latter, at least, had the boys indeed found their green-eyed sailor, rather than a green-eyed creeper.  Alas, the typical color for the country is not affiliated with the wandering freedom and exotic adventures of the seaman, but in the hobbled squint-eye of the degraded.  In the end, whether by courtesy or indecision, the narrator (code name: Smith) is yet sitting with the old man who continues to talk and ramble, lost in the circling, deeply internalized gravity of his fantasies, while Mahoney runs and chases the cat--a very boyish thing to do.  Finally there's a pause in the speech, and the narrator seems finally to arrive at his decision--or the decision, epiphany-like, comes to him.  And a mighty collision!  He jumps to his feet and shouts at his friend, who comes to help him out.

But what of that last line: "And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little"?

I can't help thinking that a lot of this story has to do with nationality.  Does the narrator have a twinge of guilt that maybe he's expatriating himself by leaving the national scumbag (and "scumbag" matches the color profile from the previous story, which was there used to represent city and country), and the spoken dislike is just empty validation for his further moment of doubt?  I don't know, but it fascinates me.

I will come back to it after further context is read.

Two down; thirteen to go.


  1. The nationality point is really interesting because, if Mahoney is Protestant, he could possibly be used to represent foreignness, such as Britain or the United States, both predominantly Protestant. The authors intrigued me. I know that Thomas Moore is famous for dying for his Catholic faith when Henry VIII wanted to change to Anglicanism. I do not know the religions of the other 2 (no help from Wikipedia this time), but could the green (as you suggested, Ireland)--eyed man possibly be suggesting Catholic authors in order to further represent Ireland? Again, without knowing the other 2, I can't tell, but that was my initial thought upon reading it.

    So I definitely think that the story's about nationalism/national shame or humiliation, but I think there's more to it. I think much of it is sort of a Romansbildung, or the protagonist wants it to be, at least. He starts out thinking that what he wants is excitement and danger. But by the end, he is screaming for help merely to escape some homely and fairly ordinary (if a bit disturbed) old guy. I think there's something in here about the frustrations of growing up. What do you think?

    Also, about the entertainment: I remember that when I was reading about "Ulysses" I came across a fairly famous comment in which he says (paraphrasing here) that academics will take decades and not figure out all the puzzles in his book. In other words, yes, entertainment is not at the top of his list. It kind of bothers me. I'm all for puzzles and cool little tricks that you really have to study to figure out, but I think there has to be more.

  2. There's a pretty remarkable level of vanity in this brilliant man. And there's nothing more obnoxious than arrogance with the bones to back it up. There's a great section in my favorite book on translation (how many times have I mentioned it now?) by Eco where he talks about the translation of Finnegan's Wake into Italian. It's really pretty amazing, but more than obvious is Joyce's self-confidence and arrogance (he was heavily involved in the translation, especially as he lived a significant portion of his life in North-Eastern Italy).
    So back to the story (which I don't have in front of me at the moment): I actually didn't think about the authors in terms of their religions, but what they wrote. I was familiar with the first two, including Moore, but not the third, which "boys shouldn't read." More than likely he was just a pop writer at the time that got into more sexy stuff than would warrant inclusion in any particular literary cannon. I need to go back and look at the authors in both contexts. I think I've got access to info that will shed light on their religions.
    Definitely Bildungsroman, and I think that's pretty implicit. Besides, if this collection is going where I think it is (death to death, and since we're starting with youth, it's got to end with age), there's also got to be a transition out of childhood, and I think this is it.
    I like you're observations about the childish notion of wanting to get far away from home and safety and then when faced with danger wanting to go right back to parents and home.
    Now back to Joyce: you have read many more of his words than I have, but I think sometimes it's easier to really get hold of a writer via shorter works (and I'm interested in your take on this, at least in terms of Joyce), because they encapsulate, and so much faster, what a personality and perspective that writer has, not to mention an angle on the scope of his talent. And, just judging by these two stories, Joyce is a master craftsman. Honestly, he reminds me (and forgive the comparison) of Hulme, but not only in strength of craft—the extreme extreme technical mastery—but also in weakness. While Hulme is remarkably capable of beautifully representing the beautiful—or even the ugly in a beautiful way—there is a particular lack of emotion. I look at these two Joyce stories, and I’m flabbergasted at the skill involved in putting so much in so little place, but the only emotion that I get through the text is rancor. That’s not hard! And the comparison is striking when you put these two stories against something like, well, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which I think is a perfect story. These two, technically, I am unable to find fault with. The rancor works for both of them. And there’s so much to unlock! But I find a similar amount of unlocking in Salinger, though he lacked the level (though he was no slouch!) of technique of Joyce—kind of Debussy to Alkan kind of comparison. BUT WHO’S GOT BOTH? Is it even possible?
    I doubt it.

  3. I've got a few other opinions on stories that are perfect. But here I've got three. Two by Joyce. That's insane.

  4. YES! That is what it is. There's no soul in Joyce! It's missing, as Dow Chemical's marketing campaign goes, the "Human Element". There's no doubt that these are brilliant. These stories are great, and "Ulysses" is really in a class of its own, perhaps accompanied by "Finnegan's Wake", which I have never read, and may never read (btw, how the HECK do you go about translating that into another language???? I would think there would be too much word play/"unreadableness".). But aside from the technically amazing nature of it, I never really could understand or empathize with (which goes hand in hand) the protagonists. I spent 600 pages reading about Leopold Bloom, who is being cuckolded, and I never felt bad for him, or really any emotions. It was just like, "Wow, this guy is a loser." And the thing is, usually losers are the characters I root for! (Empathy there more than sympathy, I'm afraid.)

    Is it possible to combine both? It's hard to say because the reason we celebrate Joyce is because of his technical proficiency (at least the reason I do; perhaps some people like it for other reasons, but I don't). If someone were to come along that could combine both, I think Joyce would become less relevant--or at least I don't think "Ulysses" would be the #1 novel of the 20th century according to the Modern Library. But I still think it's possible. I have to imagine that someone's going to come along and, building upon previous authors, take the extraordinary craft of Joyce, combine it with the soul of someone like Tolkien, and build something truly great. It would take a true genius, but I'm not done hoping!

  5. Ulysses and these stories.... While I was reading "An Encounter" the third time while writing up my thoughts, I kept shaking my head, "Man, this is really in a class by itself." But, like you said--the HUMAN ELEMENT.

    As another interested in languages, you've got to pick up a copy of "Experiences in Translation," by Eco. You will love it, and really the description of the translation of "Finnegan's Wake" is entertaining and amazing.

    There are so many authors, classic and new, that do spectacular things with their compositions, their layering, their compassion ("spark of life" according to Martel), but if lack of soul is a flaw, and if that's the only thing preventing Joyce from being the "perfect" or ideal author (or his works being such), then it will be quite a day when that work emerges. Not only will it need to garner attention early in its published life, but it will have to "stand the test of time," and prove itself relevant not just to period but to cannon. I guess that optimistically and technically there's no reason to say that such a work and writer are impossible, but generally the qualities required to produce such a work are exclusive.

    I'll bet there are thousands of doctoral dissertations that dig into this question. And I bet they all fail to answer their own erudite question. A definable answer can't exist until the perfect work exists, I guess.

  6. Right, and of course, if and when that happens, people will find little ways it could be better. I just can't think of anything that has Joyce's craftsmanship right now that also can move me as I want to be when I'm reading a great book. I don't think there's any reason why they MUST be mutually exclusive, but it's so hard just to become good at doing one of the two things as a writer, I can see why it's ALMOST ALWAYS mutually exclusive. I once heard a funny analogy on Ken Burns's documentary "Baseball" talking about Babe Ruth, who was not only the greatest hitter in baseball history, but also was a truly great pitcher. The writer, Dan Okrent, said it was like combining Cezanne and Beethoven and having them produce one work. That's what it would take.

    I'll keep an eye out for that book. It does sound interesting. I just can't believe someone would actually undertake the project. READING "Finnegan's Wake" is hard enough.

  7. There's an inherent problem with viewing the greats of the past, which I've noticed particularly in the world of drumming. People have made similar comments regarding a man named Buddy Rich, a truly spectacular drummer, who could do EVERYTHING. The problem is that he played in a period and musical climate so entirely different from ours, that it's impossible for us to first truly appreciate what he was doing (we've had this conversation before regarding understanding the culture from which a work emerges) and two he's gone up on a pedestal that has more to do with how good he was back then and compared to others around him of the time, not how well he would do or good he would be in today's musical climate. There are drummers right now who I believe are better than Buddy Rich, but to say so is tantamount to blasphemy--really. Buddy Rich = God to most drummers. Well, I'm willing to go out on a limb and claim that there are writers with technical proficiency to match Joyce (I have no idea who these are, but I just bet they're out there), but Joyce has gone up on a similar pedestal and I don't know what it will take to bring him down (not that I hope for it, necessarily). For example, I can name three drummers who I think blow away Buddy Rich. BLOW HIM AWAY! They're not even considered, really, compared to BR. Maybe it will take more time. Maybe there's an issue of "range of influence of the drumming culture" that truly no one will ever accomplish again. And I think this brings up another significant point on the matter: Babe Ruth, Buddy Rich, James Joyce all had such a tremendous influence because there were less to influence; there was less diversity. Is it even possible to bring about such a girth of influence like these blasts from the past in todays massive diverse and broad information age?

  8. You're exactly right. This is a major problem in sports, too. Look at Babe Ruth's body and compare him to some modern players. There is NO WAY you can tell me that he'd be able to compete with the modern players and all of their training, conditioning, building off tricks that greats like him taught them. But I think judging people against their historical context is a key part of it. To use a literary example, take the "Canterbury Tales" or even "Beowulf". At the time, it was like, "WOW! WHAT IS THIS?" Today, I find some of the Tales, as well as "Beowulf" moderately enjoyable, but they don't blow my mind away. But within the context of when they were written, they are truly exceptional books.

  9. And the more I think about it, the scope of influence (which can only come from out of the historical context), is a major player here. But Joyce is blowing my mind like little--if anything--else from his period has.

  10. Hmm. Very interesting business here, indeed. I feel like there is little I can contribute, not having read this or, frankly, anything by Joyce. BUT! I trust your literary inferences, and I think you guys have him pinned down well, even if the deeper meaning of this particular yarn is still eluding you.

    The argument about context pervades every art form. The simple fact is, not only were there less people doing any given thing in the past, but they had cruder implements to do it with. They had many fewer competitors because there were many fewer people. Finally, publishing has made extraordinary leaps in recent years, mostly with the advent of the internet. I think we can include advertising in the same category, going back to the dawn of nationally distributed publications.

    At the time Bach was writing organ suites there was no way to distribute them except by physical copies of the score. That alone was not a simple task, made none simpler by the dearth of recordings. How to sell a piece to someone who has no idea what it sounds like? Then if purchased, should one be incapable of playing the pieces as intended, they didn't get performed. The audience would be slighted, and the influence stagnant, until such a time as some traveling virtuoso comes through town. And then HUZZAH! Look at this daring feat, inimitable in your wildest fantasies! Until slowly but surely, this virtuoso takes on students in his older years, passing his knowledge down a growing tree. Soon there are many virtuosi, and the whole process quadruples its pace.

    Secondly, as population grows unchecked, and density increases, it becomes impossible to be secluded from influence. New styles become various amalgamations of the old. Not because that is the only option, but because it is easier than invention. It is, for a time, successful on the merits of its successful roots, much like an heir. It is, according to some, inevitable and final. But I think it is simply the path of least resistance, and that until we run out of things to say, we shan't run out of ways to say them. If that be the case, I have little doubt a writer will arrive who can finally sate our appetites with the proper blend of proficient dry-rub and soulful jus!

    [How anti-climactic was that contrivance?]

    In any case, that's my take.

  11. It appeared after hitting the "Post Comment" button, that my contribution had been lost to the vacuum of rogue web-servers. Dismayed, I furiously typed up this second post. Fortunately, luck saw me out, and upon previewing this second comment, I realized it was redundant. I am going to publish it anyway for your enjoyment. If anything in my first comment was objectionable, disregard the last paragraph of this one where I displayed confidence in it.

    My frustration was expounded to thusly:


    I reserve the use of "OMG" for only the direst straights, and this is one of them. After writing some paragraphs of commentary on the above, summarizing my thoughts, and garnishing with musical and gastronomic allegories, I found myself contending with an error message. I pressed the "back" button to dismay. My comment was as lost as Eurydice to Orpheus when he looked back, fooled by the voice of Doubt.... Yes, quite a lame simile, but my brain is tired.

    ARGHH!!! You would have loved it, too, if that's not too boastful of me. I thought it was rather clever and well-considered. I guess we'll never know. Damn you, internet!

  12. "...expounded TO..."
    Another of these proof-reading errors you guys mentioned. You'll notice I deleted the post a couple times to correct one thing and another. Literally, one thing and another. Go figure.

  13. Devin -- I've resorted to copying and pasting from Word when I know I've got something big to say, because there's always the risk of losing it; I've done that a few times.


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