“Araby,” A Small Masterpiece By A Guy Known For Masterpieces That Were Not Small
NOTE: THIS PIECE HAS ALMOST NO POLITICAL CONTENT, IF THAT’S GOING TO BE A PROBLEM FOR YOU
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“Folks know what I think, because I tell them clearly, directly, as I did when I held the largest event in Wyoming political history without a rodeo element”
— Matt Gaetz
I have mixed feelings about audiobooks, although certainly there’s much to be said in their favor. Or, if you like, in their defense.
Listening to audiobooks is, if nothing else, a way to put a dent in your reading list. And my list, which traditionally skews brobdingnagian, is forever crying out for any old dent in a storm.
Also, it must be conceded, audiobooks do effectively spice up the hours I’m forced to squander, endlessly driving from Point A to Point B, and back again.
It’s amazing how much time we burn through in motorous locomotion, simply because Point A is never so consistently great that we can tune out the siren song of Point B. And then, inevitably, when we’ve hung out at Point B for a while, the people of Point B start looking at their watches and clearing their throats. Even if we can ignore the first five or sixteen hints, Point A is, after all is said and done, the place where we keep our phone chargers.
Against that, I have to confess I nearly always find listening to audiobooks an unsatisfying substitute for actual reading. As unsatisfying substitutes go, though, they are far from the worst.
At a restaurant which has since moved on to Restaurant Valhalla, I was once served a dish that was 5% MSG, but 6% broken glass. This last ingredient had gone unmentioned on the menu, so I complained to the waiter.
I should emphasize here that I’m not the “complaining to the waiter” type. I’m inclined to indulgence when it comes to waiters and waitresses, but broken glass in my food seemed like a bridge too far. It was the entree, after all.
I expected to get my meal comped, as putting broken glass in a diner’s entree is a pretty serious misstep for an industry that prides itself on not killing its customers, but the manager saw things through a different lens. After putting the lens back in the lens case, he sent over a magnanimous plate of flan.
He made a great show of waving his arms about, as if he were ushering onstage a team of acrobats.
“Consider this flan on the house!”
I was also once told by a fellow I’d taken to be of sound mind and body that he had a “very special surprise!” for me. I waited while he went to fetch what I imagined would be a generous tip for my services, and he returned excitedly with a framed photo of his cat.
As a rule, I tend to weather such indignities with impotent rage, but I’ve often wondered how things would have gone down, if an unshaven and shirtless Dylan Thomas had been bending an elbow with us, during The Episode Of The Glass In The Repast.
It seems reasonable to assume that the great roisterer and grogsman would have managed to locate, within his burly compass, the appropriate words needed to damn all such plates of undesired flan, stretching from that infamous moment, curving along milky roads and byways, and wending through and around and beyond the day that endeth recorded time, with its rivers o’ blood, and wild cohort of dragons.
Of course, one shouldn’t romanticize these Welshmen; if he had been there, he may have just tossed the shards over his burly shoulder and kept on stuffing his boyish face.
It is possible, I’ve found, to locate the odd dramatic reading of a piece of literature that actually expands your appreciation of the work, and if something along those lines can be called an audiobook, so be it.
Happily, this happened to me with actor Chris O’Dowd, and the James Joyce short story “Araby.”
An Audible account gives you a free audiobook of the Irish actor reading all the stories from Joyce’s classic Dubliners collection. I stumbled onto this fact, and it was certainly one of my more profitable stumbles.
Despite my early and enduring affectation of enthusiasm for Joyce, the only Joyce book I ever made it through all the way was “Portrait of the Artist.” Whenever I took a crack at the others, I barely got past the front cover before throwing in the towel and loudly slamming the book shut.
“Call me Ishmael.” Bang!
I’ve always meant to go back and charge through the highly-regarded short stories, but somehow, in the warp and woof of life, I have never managed to sit down and do that.
When I read that author Nick Mamatas picked “Araby” as the best short story in the English language, I figured I needed to finally read it. It struck me as strange that he’d chosen that story, rather than “The Dead,” which is often deemed Joyce’s best, by the sort of people who deem things.
So I downloaded the O’Dowd audiobook. I was returning from Point B one day while listening to “Araby,” and it didn’t take long for me to discover that I don’t have the mental capacity to process that story while trying to avoid a vehicular orgy of blood and steel.
So, I heard it the first time as a kind of impressionistic wash of rhythms, language and Irishness.
I suspect Joyce would agree with me that this is a good way to hear the story, because when the actual plot of the thing is yanked away entire, as one might yank away a large iced coffee before a baby can gleefully knock it over, what’s left is mysterious and compelling.
At least, that’s what is left when it’s being read by Chris O’Dowd.
O’Dowd captures my idea of Irish culture, which may be wrongheaded, but there it is. As far as I can tell, from the anecdotal evidence of John Ford films, Irish fiddling, and the prose of Flann O’Brien and Spike Milligan, Irish culture is a blend of subtle humor and egregious melancholy. Irish culture is, in short, a bizarre melange that could only be pulled off by people who drink heavily enough, over a longish interval, to acquire the knack of accomplishing things drunk that most of us couldn’t do sober. I spent years, myself, trying to master this manner of virtuosity, and was forced to concede in the end that it was very much beyond my ken.
I’m not trying to suggest that O’Dowd works drunk. I don’t know, and don’t care to know, whether he does. What I do know is that he takes Joyce’s language and delivers it as well as I have ever heard anything at all delivered.
My first pass through the story, and much of the second pass additionally, where I was now on dry land, but nevertheless acutely distracted by my dog, was for me mostly about rhythm, and the careful modulation of breath, volume, and tone.
The Irish actor underplays it beautifully, but with an enunciation so free of flaw or blemish that it lands the prose in the realm of the abstract.
Just when I was beginning to cotton to the events of the story, my dog urgently required my attention. The occasion demanded of me a species of benevolent intervention that I prefer to not spell out. Readers will have to be satisfied with the knowledge that it had something to do with the dog’s consistently bad past judgment regarding what does, and does not, qualify as food.
The look on the mutt’s beleaguered puss, before I stepped in and proceeded to bail him out, as it were, told a tale arguably less profound than Joyce’s, but also harder to misunderstand, even with distractions both present and plentiful. (Thus, while my understanding of Joyce’s story had been compromised by my dog, causing me to lose the plot, my dog’s story was then compromised by Joyce, and I still managed to get the muttley gist right between the eyes.)
I will decline to get very far along into the details of either narrative, but I will point out a few items of interest in the literary one.
I don’t know exactly what I expected, when I saw Mamatas holding this story aloft in several different essays about writing. He declined to elaborate on the witchery Joyce packed into the short, in fact, very short, story.
But it turns out that “Araby” has things I always look for in a story, and usually fail to locate within its walls, no matter how many square feet it takes up.
Joyce’s narrator— it seems ruinously pedantic to call him a “protagonist”— tells us about an incident from his youth, indicating the comedy and tragedy of same without ever quite articulating his current position on either. It’s quite a balancing act, where poetry and the comic spirit are seated so close together that their bare knees are touching.
We were all of us young and stupid once (some of us more than once, it seems), but few of us could manage to talk about it later without sacrificing either drama or nuance. Most of us would probably not know to try.
It’s an extraordinarily sad story, and yet I laughed out loud often. To some degree this was O’Dowd’s doing, but he was handed the right material to work with to bring it off, and bring it off he did.
You often hear people pompously intone that there’s no such thing as perfection, and perhaps they are right, but I don’t have the intellect one would need to see how this story of Joyce’s could have been improved. Let us say the same for O’Dowd’s reading.
It’s possible that if the actor were to record himself reading Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, I might make it all the way through those books. But it’s also possible that the effort would wear the poor man down to a shadow, and end his otherwise likely future of gainful employment.
I recommend you download this O’Dowd reading, and while for legal reasons I can’t advise you to listen to it at the same time you’re involved in anything as perilous as motoring or dogwalking, I do advise you to listen once or twice without really giving it your full attention. That shouldn’t be too difficult, unless you spend your days away from the distraction of human contact, as one does who works at the South Pole, or in an American library during warm weather.
If I’m ever seated next to O’Dowd in some setting where my failure to acknowledge him would strike him as awkward— and barring a situation where we are handcuffed together as the result of an Irish policeman’s curious idea of wit, I don’t know what that setting would be— I plan to tell him how much I loved his “Araby”reading.
I’ll be sure to tell him it’s my favorite performance of his, even though I’ve enjoyed a few dozen half hours of O’Dowd’s fine acting in several different shows.
He’s a very funny actor. I expect to long remember a scene where he is on a date with a woman who spends the whole meal talking about human bones.
Now, for all I know, recording these short stories was a quick day’s work for him, but I suspect from the excellence of his reading that he took the job quite seriously indeed.
If English men and ladies approach a performance of Shakespeare with the knowledge that his hallowed writing elevates their lineage, and very nearly balances out the ledger with regard to their country’s checkered imperial history, I would guess that any literate Irish person would feel similarly about the words of Joyce. Except for the part about the checkers.
God damn his eyes, Joyce was good at his job.