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James Bryson Hyatt

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Unsentimental Holidays, Part 1: James Joyce and "The Dead"

Posted: 12/11/2012 11:19 am

I generally love the holidays, Halloween through New Year's Eve. (I try to stretch this out to the Super Bowl too, but my significant other isn't having any of that.)

I come from a big family, so when things are going well, the holidays are a time of fun, laughter, and love. Other times -- during financial problems, domestic strife or the winter blues -- I know the holidays can make people feel even worse.

It's natural: we put pressure on each other to be merry, dress festively and carol with gusto.
The reality is we might want to cut off the lights, draw the curtains, and watch The Godfather on a loop until all the singing's done outside.

To help, I'm going to roll out a handful of suggested books, movies and albums to get you through the holidays without much sentiment -- while also not falling back on cynicism and despair. I hope these suggestions are clear-eyed clarifiers, letting you know it's okay to not be kissing under the mistletoe if you don't feel up to it.

Bleak, Beautiful

My first recommendation hit home two years ago. I'd read James Joyce's Dubliners in college, and appreciated this collection of short stories for Joyce's ability to create a city of vivid characters and quite human stories without any trace of cliche' or irony.

I didn't return to Dubliners until 2010. I was staying with my very large family, in a very large house, with a lot of noise, toys and television. While actively trying to stay away and stay sane, I found a decent copy at a local bookstore.

I sat down and started reading. The experience changed me for the better.

In particular, "The Dead," the story (or novella) that concludes this collection was particularly... affirming.

Don't be fooled -- it's not a heart-warming tale of redemption. In brief, it's about a husband and wife attending a holiday dance and dinner. The wife is at a remove; the husband is awkward, insecure, blundering. They make it through the event. At home, their conversation is at once heartbreaking and powerful, a summation of the human experience etched with sadness and acceptance.

The final paragraph of "The Dead" might be one of the most astounding pieces of English literature, period. I give the edge to The Great Gatsby's close, but I'm willing to discuss the point.

"The Dead" allowed me to find some balance, and I could handle the rest of family time with a sense of deeper perspective.

This past Friday, friends mentioned they'd be in Dublin for New Year's week. I smiled and asked if they planned to read "The Dead" while there. Both husband and wife looked at me as if I'd suggested dropping poison in each other's champagne.

"Honestly, you're in Dublin. New Year's. And if it snows, you HAVE to read it," I told them. To make sure, I'm sending my copy with them.

It's bleak AND beautiful. I've found inspiration from a great artist, reaching out from a different world and a different century. I'm going to use that inspiration this new year to look at things as they are, not as I want (or hope) them to be.

And then move on.

Further reading:

There are any number of versions and formats of Dubliners available.

Or you can buy just "The Dead" as a novella.

John Huston adapted the screenplay (with his son, Tony) and directed a feature film version of The Dead in 1987. It starred his daughter, Angelica, and Donal McCann. The film was nominated for two Oscars and won several other awards worldwide.

 

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