The Dead by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Although James Joyce's "The Dead" is a short story from the "Dubliners" collection, it was published as a separate book in the Penguin 60s series. Its 59 pages contain only 15,672 words, which is about 37 times fewer that Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and about 84 times fewer than Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". Still, because of its stunning psychological depth, this short story can properly be called a novella.
The story takes place at a New Year's party in Dublin over a period of few hours. Two elderly sisters are having their annual sing and dance party. Among various colorful characters attending the event is the protagonist, the sisters' nephew, Gabriel, who is accompanied by his wife, Gretta. He is the one to carve the goose and to make the main speech of the night. One of the songs reminds Gretta of a dramatic event from the past.
This is an impressive work of literary art, on many levels. First of all, it is absolutely amazing that the story is not dated at all. The collection was published in 1914, exactly 100 years ago, even before commercial radio was available. Despite all the mindboggling progress in technology, people have not changed. Some topics of conversations at a party held today may be different, although most would be similar to those that Mr. Joyce describes, and, of course, people today would be constantly checking Facebook or e-mail, yet their psychology, reactions, and moods remain the same as hundred years ago.
This is the first book that I have read that focuses on people's moods and here Joyce is a phenomenally skilled observer. Over the few hours, Gabriel's mood constantly changes, either subtly or in a dramatic way, and the intense feeling that the story is real, that the reader participates in the party, is palpable.
While many authors are able to capture sharp psychological observations, very few are so masterful in their writing. The novella is a tour de force of short prose, and the last two pages take your breath away.
I loved Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". I read many fragments of "Ulisses" and was very impressed. This novella provides a strong argument for my pet thesis that books should, in general, be shorter. Joyce shows that one can construct a lively, complex, wise, and utterly believable depiction of human behavior on 59 pages.
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