If you are a reader – I mean a constant, meticulous reader who savors good writing like good food – then you’ll recognize the experience I’m about to try to describe.
It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, and my wife Karen and I were at my sister and brother-in-law’s house . While Karen was getting herself and our luggage ready for our flight home, I spotted an inviting wing-back chair in the corner of a bedroom down the hall from ours. So, I went downstairs and perused the bookshelves, finally deciding on an old copy of Dubliners, by James Joyce. I’m a big fan of some of his short stories, and I’ve started reading his novel Ulysses three times. It keeps popping up as the Best Novel Ever Written on various lists, but I’ve never been able to get very far into it; the challenging syntax and confusing plot make me slam it shut after not too many pages and search for something more user-friendly.
Back upstairs, I settled into that chair, adjusted the slats of the wooden blinds in the window so that enough gray morning light could come in so that no electric lights were necessary, and found what looked like a short enough story in Dubliners for me to finish before time for our hosts to drive us to the airport.
I settled on “A Painful Case”, which I think I read in college. But the distance, in years, between my college era and now is something like the earth to the moon. So reading this fine little tale about one Mr. James Duffy stumbling, late in life, upon his true soul mate – who was unfortunately married, unhappily but faithfully, to someone else – was like enjoying it for the first time.
And enjoy it, I did. Joyce’s description of Dublin a century ago, of the soot-covered streets, smoke-filled pubs, and corned beef and cabbage with strong black tea is the work of a master wordsmith. Mr. Duffy, the central character, has “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed.” He’s completely alone. So one reason I liked it so much is probably because I, unlike him, have both companions and friends, both church and creed, not to mention a very real soul mate who I am fortunate to be married to. Characters unlike ourselves are usually fun to read about.
But my total reading immersion went far deeper than that. The story’s setting is a rainy, cold November, mostly in badly lit rooms. Just like the room, the weather, and the month in which I happened to be reading. The only sound was a steady patter of light rain, barely a drizzle, outside the window.
It was as if I was actually in the story. Or maybe with its author while he composed it. I could almost see James Joyce sitting in just such a chair as the one I occupied, in just such a room, his eyes squinting behind the tiny round eyeglasses he favored. I could almost hear the nib of his pen scratching across stiff paper.
Later, as I sat in the airport leafing though a newspaper, I couldn’t get that brief story out of my head. Karen showed me pictures of room arrangements and holiday decorations that caught her attention in a magazine, and I nodded and looked at them and thought of Dublin. When our plane lifted up over the Dallas suburbs, not even the abundance of gold and yellow trees, glorious in their finest autumn attire below us, could pull me away from Mr. Duffy and his sad dilemma. An hour later we floated down over Houston in bright sunlight, and those colorful trees were replaced by blue FEMA tarps spread out over countless roofs which were victims of Hurricane Ike. And I was still in Ireland, in a dark, cold rain.
I tell my students who want to be writers that literature is a 50/50 proposition. The author can only provide half of the effort; the reader has to come up with the other half. A writer might create something that is an absolute masterpiece, but unless the reader gives careful attention to it, it will fail. Not because of the writer; because of the reader.
My reading, that cold morning in McKinney, of that short story was so close to a hundred percent that it was downright eerie.
The whole experience reminded me how very powerful the marriage of good writing and careful reading can be. It was enough to make me promise myself to have another go at Ulysses sometime.
Which will be my fourth attempt to make some sort of sense of it.