April 10, 2008

April NaBloPoMo(Cross-posted, after the introductory paragraph, at A Curious Singularity)

This is my first post to A Curious Singularity, a group blog operated by Canadian writer Kate Sutherland and dedicated to the discussion of a single short story each month. The title chosen is always widely available in print and online. When James Joyce’s “Araby” was announced as the selection for April I knew that I had only to go to the fiction section of the twenty linear feet of bookshelves in my family room and pluck it down. (Fiction and poetry are the only sections of the collection that are in alphabetical order and further divided into anthologies and works by single authors. I’ll get to the rest. Some day.)

“Araby” is the third of fifteen stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, originally published in 1914.  Told in the first person, it is brief, under two thousand words, unusual for a piece of fiction so informed by the nineteenth century. It gives an account of the unnamed narrator’s first romantic urges — “puppy love” is the phrase I have written  at the top of the first page of the text. The object of his desire is the older sister of one of his friends, identified only as “Mangan’s sister” — another unnamed character, a fact I have duly noted in the margin. Mangan’s sister is a slightly older girl who has shown no interest in her brother’s friend. But when she casually mentions to him that she is unable to go to the bazaar at Araby because of a school program, the boy forms the idea of going there himself and procuring a small item for her, an act he hopes will impress her.

When I was in the classroom I was adept at showing students how to approach a given work ten different ways and to write about more than a dozen aspects of it, from simile and metaphor to point of view and back again. “Araby” is heavy with literary elements, and a Google search will give you 70,000 choices of places to go for analyses and explanations and extended discussions of the story’s structure and symbolism and meaning. I don’t want to repeat, nor take issue, with any of that. For this story I am all about reader response.

I have Dubliners in a Compass Books paperback edition first issued in 1958. The young woman pictured in yesterday’s post paid $1.45 for it in August of 1967 when she bought all the other required texts for that semester’s study. To touch this volume again is to touch the girl I was forty years ago, and the notations I’ve made on the pages are like a letter from those long ago days.

And I’ve made a lot of notations, all in the black porous point pens I favored then. As I look at the marks now, I realize that I am writing down almost everything my instructor is saying. He has chosen Dubliners as the foundational text for his creative writing class. I’ve written about this teacher before. He’s the one who gave me the silken tent as a metaphor for myself. He is also the teacher who so discouraged my early efforts at writing fiction that I did not write a word of it for the next two decades. But when I was twenty I thought he knew everything, and I further thought that it was my job to write it all down.

“Joyce hated the church,” I wrote under the title, and throughout the story I’ve underlined or drawn boxes around words and phrases that evoke the author’s Catholic background: litanies, nasal chanting, “I bore my chalice,” “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.” (That sentence I have annotated to let myself know it’s a reference to “Latin, like in church.”) Mangan’s sister is described as if she is an image of the Virgin. I’ve written “Fifth Street” (the name of the street I lived on until I was fourteen) beside this description of the narrator’s (and Joyce’s) North Richmond Street neighborhood:

When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of the sky above was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.

When I was twenty I knew very little about Ireland and James Joyce and how to write a story beyond what my teacher Albert told me, and that was precious little, especially when it came to the how-to-write-a-story bit. I have no idea why he thought Dubliners should serve as the sole text for his apprentice writers. Were we supposed to imitate Joyce, and Joyce alone? Don’t misunderstand me. Dubliners is wonderful, and as Joyce texts go, it is accessible even for the casual reader. But I’m not sure now what we were supposed to learn from it, nor how we were supposed to learn it.

Since those days I have made an extended sojourn in Dublin. I’ve used a map that took me to many of the places mentioned in Joyce’s works, including the house in North Richmond Street and the Christian Brothers’ school nearby. I’ve put my foot into the curves worn into the stone steps of Newman House at 86 St. Stephen’s Green, now used as administrative offices by University College Dublin but once the classroom building where James Joyce composed his earliest stories. Rereading “Araby” and the other stories in Dubliners again reminds me that I have literally walked where Joyce walked and wrote where he wrote. (I had a special table upstairs at Bewley’s.)

And maybe I did learn something from him, and from my bitter and negligent teacher, about how to write a story. I’ve visited my early school history and my old neighborhood for my own fiction, and as we move toward the day when the Bishop McDevitt building will be repurposed as Joyce’s college hall has been, I’m sure memories bound up in that place will inform my work.

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