"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Snow Was General


The New Year has begun with a great series of connections and coincidences! To begin with, as nearly a foot of snow fell outside and the Polar Vortex delivered sub - zero temperatures, I spent the Twelfth Day of Christmas rereading "The Dead" -- the final story in the sequence of fifteen stories that comprise James Joyce's Dubliners -- in preparation for rewatching the movie version, which I always like to view with my family on Twelfth Night or Epiphany, in the same way that I always like to rewatch V for Vendetta on Guy Fawkes' Night.

I first saw the film The Dead shortly after it came out, at the Miami Joyce Birthday Conference (2 February 1988). For years we owned the video but donated it to the library when we moved, intending to update to a DVD But no! For some unknown and disappointing reason, the movie disappeared from circulation -- unavailable to buy on amazon or to rent from netflix. Until very recently:

I've read a few complaints about the way Anjelica Huston has been weirdly air - brushed on the cover of this re - release and given the rose in her hand, but I can overlook these minor details because the movie narration is exactly true to the James Joyce short story and Dublin looks so lovely! More serious is the fact that eight minutes of the original film have been omitted, but until such time that the complete version is restored, I think you'll find this one very satisfying!

I asked some of my fellow modernists what they thought about the movie, and naturally the resulting facebook thread was full of interesting observations:

Ned: "Heartbreaking!"

Steven: "That's a perfect movie for 12th Night!"

Barbara: "I once rented this and made my kids watch it with me after our traditional annual St. Patrick's Day dinner. I love that film."

Curtis: "Lighting of stairway scene is not as described in the story. Otherwise, a faithful adaptation."

Kathie: "I'm not a fan, though that is most likely my failing rather than the film's. I know most whose opinions I respect (including yours!) are quite enthusiastic; it's probably that I just don't have a very nuanced or sophisticated film sensibility. The one time I watched it, I thought it made the text seem stuffy and boring--a text I find quite the opposite, at the risk of understatement. For that reason, I've never given it a second chance."

Len: "Yes, I do remember first seeing this film at the Joyce conference. I think this is one of the most successful film adaptations of a literary work. In part, this is because it is a full-length film based on a short story, in contrast to the impossible attempts to fit a novel into a film (including mini-series of Middlemarch, Bleak House, or any other work that comes to mind). I agree with Kathie's comments about this film, despite its attempts at fidelity. I am happy seeing films that are not adaptations or are based on works I have not read and do not plan to read. It is impossible for films to convey style, point-of-view, interior thought, etc."

I have to agree that it's rare for a film to improve upon an already great text, though a well - done movie can bring surprising visual or musical value to the reading experience. I appreciate this sense of embellishment in "The Dead" during Aunt Julia's sad, sweet rendition of "Arrayed for the Bridal."

In the story, Joyce writes that "Gabriel recognized the prelude. It was that of an old song of Aunt Julia's -- "Arrayed for the Bridal". Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer's face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight. Gabriel applauded loudly with all the others at the close of the song." Joyce devotes only those few sentences to the performance, and then it is on to the applause and the embarrassingly profuse praise of dear Freddy Malins.

In the film, John Huston portrays the scene a bit differently. Rather than "strong and clear in tone," Aunt Julia's voice wavers and we gather that it has heard better days. Huston replaces "great spirit" with faded dignity, and "swift and secure flight" with endurance and perseverance. In the text, the song title alone serves to convey the irony that a funeral -- not a wedding -- is surely the next life passage for which Aunt Julia will be arrayed (as Gabriel morbidly envisions in both book and film). What the film brings to bear, in addition to the title, are the lyrics and duration of the song. The viewing audience suffers just a bit as we patiently await the painful conclusion of Aunt Julia's tune; and our hearts break a bit as the camera roams from room to room, lighting on the homely heirlooms and mementos of bygone childhoods and long - dead relatives.
Arrayed for the Bridal
Arrayed for the bridal, in beauty behold her
A white wreath entwineth a forehead more fair;
I envy the zephyrs that softly enfold her,
And play with the locks of her beautiful hair.
May life to her prove full of sunshine and love.
Who would not love her?
Sweet star of the morning, shining so bright
Earth’s circle adorning, fair creature of light!

Composed by Bellini
Lyrics by George Linley

Of course, I know what Kathie and Len are talking about. In most cases, the best movie is the one inside my head! Or occasionally, the one right outside the window; for indeed snow was falling that night in Indiana much as it had for the Dubliners, a century or more ago:

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the news­pa­pers were right: snow was gen­eral all over Ire­land. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, fur­ther west­wards, softly falling into the dark muti­nous Shan­non waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely church­yard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and head­stones, on the spears of the lit­tle gate, on the bar­ren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the uni­verse and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the liv­ing and the dead."

from "The Dead"
by James Joyce

Our discussion of the movie versus the story drew to a close late on January 5th; and on the 6th, I awoke to find the following pictures posted on my facebook page, from totally unrelated sources. Now, that's what I call a good literary coincidence!

1. This one from BookBrowse Books,
which illustrates the very point that both Kathie and Len
were making the day before:

2. This one from my sister - in - law Tina,
who wrote: "Happy Nollaig na mBan (Women's Little Christmas)!
Let's embrace this tradition!"

I hadn't heard of this particular Epiphany celebration before, but I think it explains why I like watching The Dead on 6 January -- it's their "Nollaig na mBan" party, with the exception that in Joyce's story, the "Three Graces," i.e., Aunt Julia, Aunt Kate, and Cousin Mary Jane are doing all the work, rather than the required "Women's Little Christmas" reversal of the gentlemen waiting hand and foot all day on the ladies. Still, I feel a strong connection! Can you see it:

Dinner Party Scene from The Dead

Custom & Ceremony
Additional fun and informative blog posts on the topic:
Nollaig na mBan faoi mhaise dhaoibh!
Nollaig Bheag na mBan
An Irish Tradition
Victoria writes, "Let's do this this coming summer--
and get out the dress-up box!"

P.S. As I add a few finishing touches to this post, late on Thursday the 16th, the snow is, once again, general all over Indiana.

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, January 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/james-joyce-down-and-out-in-dublin-1.1820565

  2. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/james-joyce-down-and-out-in-dublin-1.1820565