So I departed. I packed up the works of James Joyce and Yeats and I boarded an Aer Lingus flight, one of a mere handful of Jewish kids in the midst of hundreds of other American students who wanted to reconnect with their roots.
Once I decided on my course, I began to foster a vision, I think, of myself transformed into some sort of Yeatsian faerie, a figure that conjured an ache instead of an “eh” from all who beheld me. To do this I would immerse myself in Irish literature, Guinness and the drunken bits of verse I would hear from locals in bars before we started making out. I would climb every mountain in Ireland. I would take every bus route, fall in love with every bartender, join a band, become its lead singer, write award-winning poetry and move into a castle with briars and wild swans. I would stop being a loudmouth and only speak in profound, enigmatic riddles. I would grow a foot taller, while I was at it, morphing from solid to lithe.
During my study abroad program’s orientation in Limerick, I began my long semester of failure at almost all of these goals.
It was certainly not an auspicious start. After a debauched orientation, my roommate and I missed our wakeup call and kept the entire study abroad program waiting on the bus for over an hour while we frantically packed. Within the next hour, our cheeks still flaming, this first friend cut ties with me. So I fell in next with some pastel-wearing virtuous types. But when, a few nights later, I departed the bar with a man and didn’t tell them, I apparently had cut ties of my own. In a week, I had basically run through the whole program–both the fast crowd and the good girls, and was alone. As for my natural companions? The black-wearing artists were nowhere to be found, at least not yet.
I comforted myself with assurances that I shouldn’t fit in. I wasn’t only there to drink and flirt with gardai and rugby players. I was there for the Irish soul, for the poetry and the music in the hills. This worked to an extent: there’s nothing as soothing and distracting as an earnestly-assumed pose.
So I took out my copy of Joyce’s story collection Dubliners, cheating by starting with the final novella, “The Dead.” Everyone said that this was the story of stories, the best short piece of prose ever written. My mind would be blown, I decided, and that would prove its superiority.
I turned the pages past the story’s final revelation: the protagonist Gabriel Conroy’s wife Gretta unburdens herself, reveals that her youthful sweetheart Michael Fury, cold and feverish, died after standing all night in a Galway street just a few blocks from where I sat. I was moved, sort of. I wrote a friend back home: “am I missing something? I mean, it’s a beautiful story and everything, but…what’s the point?”
Now, wiser, I have joined the legions of readers who praise the story to the skies. There are many reasons for this. Since that fall in Ireland, I’ve gotten better acquainted with its subject. Like Gretta, I lost a friend young–when he and all of us were 22. I have realized that though the heart conceals its former breaks, they linger. And with perspectie, I see my relationships’ tapestry of sharedness snag once in a while across a nail of hurt or joy that only truly exists in only one of several entwined hearts, just as it does for poor Gabriel when Gretta says of Michael Furey: “I think he died for me.”
I have seen myself in Gretta, holding a secret pain, and mostly I have seen myself, all of us, in Gabriel, stumbling arrogantly through scenes we don’t understand, scenes full of other people’s sorrow.
At 20, as I first settled my eyes on “The Dead”’s fabled closing scene of the falling snow, I knew little of all these subjects. I went back to the beginning of the collection and read the stories in order, hoping a proper reading would work a spell on me. It did, slowly. Not much happens in “Dubliners,” at least on the surface. Throughout the collection people want to alter the course of their lives and they can’t. They form relationships that are promising but then take expected paths. They go to parties and contemplate mortality and their inability to know each other. They have premarital affairs and get knocked up and badgered into marriage. They have strange, one-off encounters that provoke discomfort, self-knowledge and inevitably: self-loathing. They abandon old friends. Sometimes I think of Dubliners as the description of a city in paralysis, which fascinates me as a native New Yorker, a daughter of the quintessentially fluctuating metropolis. And yet despite my inborn restlessness, Dubliners’ paralysis resonated for me alone in my Irish dorm room. I had left home, but I was paralyzed too.
My room in my Galway dorm, in a student conclave by a low river, was a ferocious attempt to define myself against the American Mollys and Michaels who had rejected me. Each time my friends–I made plenty soon enough–and I finished a bottle of wine I put a candle in it and lined it up against my window. Postcards of my favorite paintings and rock stars bordered on my walls. And yet, hints of wholesomeness crept through the bohemian affect. My duvet cover, purchased at the local discount store, still makes me sigh: girlish lavender and blue flannel, checked, soft, a barrier against the loneliness, the dampness, the chill.
In Galway I stumbled, tipsy, along the same paths that the fictional Michael Fury did, and went to poetry parties two doors down from the Barnacle house, where Joyce’s wife Nora — the inspiration for Gretta — grew up. I befriended Sara, my Irish alter-ego, a semi-rare out lesbian in Galway with fake red hair like me, who, like me, wrote poetry. We drank in artsy pubs off the cobblestoned streets. We read our poems at the local library. We sat by the canal; we sat by the sea and watched the gulls. We biked back and forth and in and out of town, often drunk or stoned on strong hash, sometimes with new friends in tow. There were moments, on my bike, with the river and the wind and the fast-moving skies above me, where I felt as free as I’d longed to. But each day when I woke up I still kept all the qualities I had hoped to shed: bookish, eager, needy, unmysterious, prosaic, short-tempered, sarcastic, hungry, frequently too exhausted to leave my room and go out in the rain and try again.
Dubliners is simultaneously dark and humane; it loves its characters even as it calmly pronounces their fate. And though they often end up not far from where they started, in the meantime we have seen them through their (or our) fabled Joycean epiphanies; we have lbeen granted clarity. The people in the stories are afforded by their author a choice: to be resigned to their lot, to fight it, to accept it. Will they bend like the titular heroine in “Eveline” does, letting her controlling father prevent her from going to America; will they foist their shame on others like the angry father in Counterparts, who works out his inadequacies by beating his son–or will they be like Gabriel Conroy at the end, finally understanding that we’re all doomed but our doom binds us together?
Seven years after my trip abroad, my MFA program convinced me, as MFA programs do, to take a break from novel-writing aspirations and try short stories. Since then, Dubliners has gained a second life as a talisman of perfect craft. I have read and discussed “The Dead” in countless lectures. I have patterned my own stories after “Eveline.” I have tried my hand at a feminist homage to “Araby,” in which a girl instead of a boy goes on a futile journey of vanity, leaving childhood behind. I can explain so much about Dubliners now that I couldn’t that first time; the precision of language, the gender politics, the nationalist politics, the Aristotalean plot structure minus its final act. I can contemplate the role that exquisite prose, free indirect discourse, onomotopeia, chiasmus, ellipsis can play in good storytelling.
But if you mention Dubliners to me, I will never go to those things first. Instead, I will envision who want to make a break from their lives and don’t. I will picture myself with flaming red hair, riding my turquoise bike, charging across the Salmon Weir bridge to hang a sharp turn into Galway Town. I will see myself trying in vain to make my life’s trajectory also bend suddenly and unexpectedly, yet all along going exactly where I was meant to, where I was expected to, where my own story led me.
On my last weekend in Ireland, my friend Adam and I made a pilgrimage to Sligo to see the Yeats sights. We forgot that everything in Ireland is closed on Sundays, and pissed our Saturday away drinking “the best pint in Ireland” over and over in a famous old bar, waking up with hangovers to schlep in the rain to the uninspiring Isle of Innisfree. The cloud-obscured shores were marked only by sparse and faded signage. We snapped some pictures. I ran out of film.
Then we went home. And soon thereafter I went all the way home–out of the mist, into the cold sunshine of New York. I was thrilled to hear the Hannukah song on the streets of the Upper West Side, to wait on line for lox. I joined my childhood friends as we celebrated our 21st birthdays one by one: the same way we always celebrated everything: conventionally, happily, with necessary minor drama.
As I bopped around the city of my youth, I didn’t yet see transformation had been wrought on me, but it had. Somehow in not changing because of Ireland, I became resigned to my own character. In fact, I became pleased with it. I could be content being smart, and solid, and sharp-tongued and loud, and not enigmatic or ephemeral at all. After all, there I was, moving through the grand, flawed, connected story that Joyce is telling us in Dubliners. I was no sprite; I was a person.
Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms. magazine, The LA Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Hairpin, and the Forward, among other places. Find her at www.sarahmseltzer.com and tweeting too much at @sarahmseltzer.