Joyce built a reputation on a remarkably small base of work, very little of it conventional. This collection of shorter pieces represents his earliest work and show an almost uncanny ability to use language. The pieces progress from childhood to death, from short to long, and they become deeper.
Each of the pieces is based around a moment of revelation, sometimes for the central character, sometimes for the reader, often for both. Yet at no point does Joyce lead. He gives each vignette in as near neutral a way as is possible, given his own developing style and method. Language used is appropriate to character, and sometimes seems a bit rough round the edges because of it; environment is just as important as those who move within it.
These are, to begin with, glimpses from the window, small moments of the kind we all see every day from the window of a bus or train. Little events that we cannot hope to embed in a wider context but which nonetheless are complete in themselves. As the stories progress that wider context begins to emerge and, indeed, we see some of these characters again in Ulysses.
The skill of Joyce is in writing pieces that leave us at first thinking: “I could have written that”; and then very quickly realising that we couldn’t. Not just because one needs to have been intimately associated with a place and its people, but also because one needs to have a natural ability to paint such detail with so few words.
Although I say natural, Joyce worked at his craft. But that simply increases the worth of the pieces because for all that he puts in; they still seem light and alive with the kind of energy one expects of a rough draft.
Although much is rightly made of ‘The Dead’, I still prefer the earlier, shorter pieces which for some reason remind me so much of the paintings of Tavik Frantisek Simon and to lesser extent Jack Butler Yeats. Moments captured. Frozen. Displayed for our exploration. Moments, also, that informed, shaped, and populated the imagination of Joyce himself.