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Friday, February 18, 2011

DUBLINERS, by James Joyce: "After the Race"

I am often--nearly always--very interested in the author behind a text, sometimes so much so as to let the actual text fall under shadow of a perhaps unmerited eclipse.  I want to know what the author's life was that brought about or at least influenced the work; I want to know which elements are autobiographical, which are more Freudian (inasmuch as such elements, unintentionally or subconsciously and then later permitted to remain, reveal the writer's psyche), and which are, well, anything else.  Basically, I want to know the why and how that made the work what it is: why it's so great, and how did he/she do it?  My "thing" for this is on full display in my current reading of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Why is it such a big deal?  I think it's most likely because I want desperately to be a "successful" writer myself, and I think (random extended metaphor approaching) that the fountain, the tectonic pressures, and mineral content are so much more validly inspected than the water that issues from them.  I think this might be why "After the Race" is, so far, my least favorite of Joyce's Dubliners tales: balance of intranational power and political posturing have never borne any kind of interest in me (yeah, yeah, I know: not very responsible) --less so still, the politics that don't necessarily affect me or within which I have no personal history.

"After the Race" is not a bad story.  It's every bit as sharp, I think, as, say, "An Encounter."  Topically, I just don't like it, and this point of author-behind-the-text in general, and specifically here, does make me think, in this case, about Joyce the author.  Does he display himself through the text of this story?  Creative writing--expressive writing--of any kind is, after all, a personal razing of the walls and masks, a rendering vulnerable of whatever some astute reader may be able to cull from the words.  Does Joyce hide timidly behind his words, or flagrantly streak before the world's crowded, ogling literati.

More than any of the others thus far, "After the Race," is an allegory, its title contextualizing perfectly the contents: various countries involved, some directly (France and Germany), some indirectly (the USA), and some not at all (Ireland).  What kind of race?  That of POWER!  And now that the race is over, what are the socio-political effects for the countries' citizenries?

The story begins and ends with the compromise of the Irish family--Doyle's family (and that's the big breakdown here: each family behind the individuals in the car are the respective countries and their histories; the boys in the car are the current citizens of each).  It's important to note that the value (self-perceived) of this Irish family's station will never hold comparable intrinsic valuable as that of any of the Continent's or English families, for the Doyle's homeland is forever second-rate.  Such a position among the social strata makes those who care care all the more because they'll never have what they want (for example, Seguoin doesn't even consider money, because he's never worried about it): the potential class position of the rich French, or the rich British, or the brute strength of the USA.  Meanwhile, the poor who accept their poverty, like Villona, are a bunch of happy, positive out-looking pianists.  Money and influence (translation: freedom) come from the powers; art from the poor-yet-positive; and the middle--the ascendant Irish--are but nothing, and since they'll never be more than nothing, no matter how strong the family business or anything else, they get drunk and stagger around until morning.  (So what then of the "gratefully oppressed" who are indeed Irish?  I see them as Villona, and I think that there's some derision here from the hiding Joyce.  Is he Doyle?)

This is an over-simplification, I know, but I think it gets to the core of the issue here: Ireland is repressed and poor, and it's all their own fault.  Any liner notes, no matter how brilliant the sentences and allusions they indicate (and certainly there are some true gems here--as brilliant as any), will do nothing, as far as I can see, but emphasize those famous trees in the forest, and we know already how Joyce paints his trees: from genius, certainly, but I just can't bring myself to care.  I don't feel sorry for Ireland.  I don't feel sorry for Doyle.  I don't blame the French or the Germans or the British or the Americans or the Hungarians.

I've talked before about that required "spark of life" that is so absent from Joyce.  I started to get my hopes up in "Evaline," but all hope for life is lost in "The Race," which is as devoid of it as an audit.  Joyce--the objective, albeit metaphoric, reporter--by all evidence, doesn't care.  Why should I?

As always I invite your thoughts and critique.  I know this is a very negative review.  I would love to be wrong.


  1. I wish that I could correct you, but, well, I agree. And I think that your interpretation is correct, but just like you, I don't feel anything. To me, it's really pitiful (but not in the pitiful as in provoking pity sense haha) that he as an Irishman can write about something like the raping of Ireland and feel no emotion at all. Does the man have a soul!? Wow, that was harsh. Sorry. But I don't take it back. I mean, jeez, I got more emotion from Niccolo Machiavelli.

  2. To his credit (or against his total denigration), this is not a reputedly great story (of course, that may be more to the credit of critics than Joyce). In the end though, every writer, even Joyce, writes something bad, but the problem is this is REALLY bad. Not bad technically. Maybe that's impossible for Joyce. But BAD because, like you said, how can he be so callous?

  3. Would you rather have a story that's technically proficient or has a soul?

  4. It makes sense that the more your read the broader your perspective is. Well, I've read a lot, but there is SO MUCH that I've yet to work through. Once upon a time, I swore off mysteries. I've never been a genre fiction fan--though with exceptions, of course, many of which I've spoken of here on a number of occasions. It didn't take Chabon to convince me of the potential merits of genre fiction (no matter how he lauds strange and obscure ghost stories), it took a false assumption. McSweeney's published the edition of "The Riddle of the Traveling Skull" (I think I've been writing "Mystery" -- better go correct that), and I purchased it because of their name and because of the reputation of the collection housing this particular title. Well, it's a mystery. A pulp mystery. It's absurd. It's loaded with soul and freaking fun! There's nothing really to dissect. No digging to do. It is PERFECT POPCORN FICTION. And I love me a lot of popcorn. I hated this story by Joyce. So, when it's boiled down like this, I would rather have soul. Technical proficiency is nothing without it.

    (Funny too: in spite of our criticisms, this story makes me realize that the first four in the collection actually have some life.)

  5. Hahaha, everything is relative, isn't it?

    Btw, I agree.

  6. I find this funny. Yesterday "The Economist" ran a piece about Ireland's sagging economy called "After the Race", so your timing with this is impeccable.

  7. I had no idea! I only read Johnson, not the Economist et al. That's really funny.


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