Classic

Let’s Discuss — The Dead by James Joyce

He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?

Honestly, I’m having a difficult time trying to piece together my thoughts on this short story…maybe it’s because I have very few thoughts on it.

I have never quite understood the hullabaloo about James Joyce. I read an excerpt of Dubliners in college and was bored to tears. And here I am, finished reading The Dead, the last story in Dubliners and once again–bored to tears. So instead of me focusing on how I was bored to tears (which would be boring) I’ll explore why I was bored (less boring maybe?)

Is it my inability to connect to the Irish experience? My ignorance of Dublin society circa 20th century? I can’t call it, but I highly doubt it. I’m more inclined to believe it has something to do with Joyce’s writing style. Not necessarily his modernist roots; emphasis on the subjective and the consciousness. But rather the fact that his writing lends itself to the experimental reader. And I am not an experimental reader.

What do I even mean–experimental reader? I guess I mean those readers that are open to interpreting and deconstructing every mundane “avant-garde” detail. When you read The Dead, you’re probably wondering what details I’m even referring to. On the surface it seems like an innocent story set around a winter holiday, where a social gathering of sorts evokes sad memories. And that’s primarily what I, the non experimental reader took from it. But it’s not what Joyce intended.

Rereading certain sections leads me to believe The Dead isn’t actually about lost romantic love or dead lovers. Allusions*, symbols, epiphanies, and Gabriel Conroy’s narrative shifts suggest it has something to do with year’s change, generation’s change, country’s change and how the crossing of all this change affects the heart, mind and soul.

But that’s the wannabe experimental reader part of me drawing these conclusions. Again, it’s hard to say what this story is about because I found it extremely difficult to care enough to dig deeper into the meaning**…It’s faux open-ended, haha. I don’t know. I just don’t know. You ever heard  the saying: music for musicians? This is writing for writers (and experimental readers)

*The following link only scratches the surface of how James Joyce uses Allusion in his writing. Ctrl +F “The Dead” to see Musical Allusion in The Dead

**At this point I’m not open to reading more James Joyce, but I’m always open to hearing other explanations. What is the meaning of The Dead?

Let’s Discuss — Hunger by Knut Hamsun


Small loose tufts came away, flakes that got between my fingers, and scattered over the pillow. I did not think anything about it just then; it was as if it did not concern me. I had hair enough left, anyway. I tried afresh to shake myself out of this strange daze that enveloped my whole being like a mist. I sat up, struck my knees with my flat hands, laughed as hard as my sore chest permitted me only to collapse again. Naught availed; I was dying helplessly, with my eyes wide open staring straight up at the roof. At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there a stark-mad notion.

Supposing I were to take a bite

​Have you ever heard of the term “starving artist” ? This is a story about the starving artist*. Readers follow a stream-of-consciousness induced by a young mans’ desire to gain fame as an author, fill his pockets, and more urgently, satiate his stomach. We meet our narrator in a bare room in an upper floor of a building in Kristiania**. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and the thoughts in his head.

The book doesn’t follow a strict plot as it’s dominated by internal monologue, so we’re given a firsthand account of the psychological state of our starving artist. Embarrassed by his condition; perpetual homelessness and unemployment, he’s very much concerned about how others perceive him. At the same time he thinks so highly of himself and holds low opinions of everyone and everything else. In his day-to-day interactions he lies frequently to create a semblance of success and purpose–but it’s a veneer; a crutch to comfort his bruised ego and painful shame. He morphs every uncomfortable moment (in his mind) into a trial, where he somehow overcomes temptation, buffers respectability and enables his superiority complex. And it’s like this for majority of the novel.

I was reluctant to include a passage of this length, but I don’t think Hamsun’s form can be appreciated in snippets:

I woke very early in the morning. It was still quite dark as I opened my eyes, and it was not till long after that I heard five strokes of the clock down-stairs. I turned round to doze again, but sleep had down. I grew more and more wakeful, and lay and thought of a thousand things.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal. I lie and repeat these words over to myself, and find that they are capital. Little by little others come and fit themselves to the preceding ones. I grow keenly wakeful. I get up and snatch paper and pencil from the table behind my bed. It was as if a vein had burst in me; one word follows another, and they fit themselves together harmoniously with telling effect. Scene piles on scene, actions and speeches bubble up in my brain, and a wonderful sense of pleasure empowers me. I write as one possessed, and fill page after page, without a moment’s pause.

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired.

This strange period lasts lasts such a blessedly long time before it comes to an end. I have fifteen twenty written pages lying on my knees before me, when at last I cease and lay my pencil aside, So sure as there is any worth in these pages, so sure am I saved. I jump out of bed and dress myself, It grows lighter.
​See what Hamsun did there? This entire scene is symbolic. Our narrator awakens early and is suddenly hit with inspiration. The physical awakening is matched with an inspirational awakening, and then paired with a morning shift from dark to light in a matter of minutes. The sentences lend themselves to the psychological race his mind is running. Our narrator is hopeful. But I’m here to tell you it’s in vain…I just want to point out how Hamsun’s style*** engages the reader.
While the primary stimuli is hunger, there are other forces that influence the narrator…for example, there is recurrent mention of God. However, I’m not convinced our artist is actually god-fearing, or of faith–he’s certainly not pious. He appeals to God when things aren’t going his way and credits himself when things do. I’m not going to linger on this subject–just be aware it’s there, particularly with the presence of the “Commander”. This figure aids our narrator with freelance work, food and money. Out of pure kindness he gives without expecting return. Twice he tells the narrator “I know you can write for it” after giving an advance. To me he was really saying, I know you’re worth it–I know you desire life and purpose, and I can help you, if you’re ready to accept my help.

When he had gone a few steps, I remembered all at once that I had not thanked him for this great assistance. I tried to overtake him, but could not get on quickly enough; my legs failed me, and I came near tumbling on my face. He went farther and farther away from me. I gave up the attempt; thought of calling after him, but dared not; and when after all I did muster up courage enough and called once or twice, he was already at too great a distance, and my voice had become too weak.

By the end of Hunger readers will know what poverty does to the soul of man; makes him disagreeable. It makes him observant and opportunistic…experienced. Scarred. And so our experienced starving artist encounters a captain on the pier one day, and asks if there are any positions open on his vessel. This is important because it’s the first time the narrator pursues work that isn’t completely self-involved. He convinces the captain he can carry his own weight and more. Without much question, the captain permits him to sail along and then the story ends…rather abruptly too. The starving artists’ suffering ends when he commits himself to honest, hard work. In return he is awarded food, shelter and more importantly purpose. The ending is a significant contrast. I almost want to call it simple…in the sense that all he had to do to end his hardship as a writer or “journalist” (as he would call himself), is commit to “real” work– get out of his own head and engage in society by making a living through a means not connected to romantic ideas and artistic musings.

* He relies on temporary fixes to sustain him, until he gets established through his artistic work. At times he is both voluntarily starved and involuntarily starved.

**Oslo, Norway

***Hamsun’s mantra for modern literature–intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature, to describe the “whisper of the blood, and the pleading of the bone marrow”

Let’s Discuss — On the Beach by Nevil Shute

 “It’s going to go on spreading down here, southwards, till it gets to us?”

 “That’s what they say.” 

[…] 

“Can’t anything be done to stop it?” 

He shook his head. “Not a thing. It’s the winds. It’s mighty difficult to dodge what’s carried on the wind. You just can’t do it. You’ve got to take what’s coming to you, and make the best of it.” (39)

It’s the end of world.

But the end is not instant. It’s gradual…yet still relatively quick—between six to nine months.

So what do you do? Maybe it depends on your job, your family, your faith…your view of death.

Maybe it depends on how you go out…let’s say radioactive poisoning?

Yeah, that’s it. Radioactive poisoning carried by the winds to your neighborhoods, to your doorstep, through the cracks of your window screens, in the water you drink and in the air you breathe while you sleep.

That’s how you’ll get. And there isn’t a thing you can do about it…Or is there?

“Nausea,” the chemist said. “That’s the first symptom. Then vomiting, and diarrhea. Bloody stools.  All the symptoms increase in intensity…Finally death occurs from sheer exhaustion.” He paused. “In the very end, infection or leukemia may be the actual cause of death. The blood-forming tissues are destroyed, you see, by the loss of body salts in the fluids. It might go one way or the other.” (150)

Radioactive poisoning.  It’s the end of the world.

Will you choose a decent death?

On the Beach is a realistically fictionalized post apocalyptic account of how men live out the remainder of their lives. It essentially asks, if this were to happen (a third world war initiated and ended by the atom bomb) then how would go out? Not if you go out, but how. How would you like to go out?

What I love about this book is despite the scenario, the potential to be a melodramatic undertaking, it’s a non-dramatic, thought-provoking story.

War mongering countries in the northern hemisphere exacerbated tensions between what were Russia and China of the future. The two countries were competing to be top-tier first-world countries, but they each had something the other needed. Russia needed China’s ports, specifically Shanghai, which would serve a geopolitical advantage. And China needed Russia’s land because its overpopulation was problematic for future development. China had no allies except Russia, so Russia was free to act against them, and so began nuclear warfare. A warfare where there was no “winner.” It was not a viable action , and it only led to more reactions. The end result was the decimation of the entire northern hemisphere, via impact of bombs or poisoning of the population. The only remaining survivors are those south of the equator, but even they will pass on eventually. Wind cannot be stopped.

However, winds carrying the poison will reach Australia and the South Pacific last.  And this is where readers will follow the last weeks of the survivors. American, Dwight Towers,  and Australians; Moira Davidson, and Peter and Mary Holmes are the central characters. It’s interesting to see how they cope with their fate. What’s remarkable is how unremarkable they live out the last months. They re-purpose things that soon won’t serve any purpose or engage in busy work. For example, Mary Holmes is obsessed with gardening. She plants seeds and imagines blossoms she will never see, harvests she will never reap. Just cultivating her own garden….it reminds me of the ending of Voltaire’s Candide. Sometimes there is talk of who’s to blame for all that happened, or questions about legacy: how do we tell the history of what led up to the end? which books do we seal away in the tallest mountain? how do we preserve our small piece of civilization? But all these questions are superseded by a bigger one:

What’s the point?

When the end draws near they all make the important decision. Readers will decide if death was decent.