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March 26, 2012

“Araby” is one of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners. It is not a story I have ever wanted to admit I love deeply, but it is one that speaks to me in ways I can only haltingly try to explain. The story, here, is in italics, and my attempts at explanation are sandwiched between its paragraphs in slightly darker type.

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

One of my first memories is of walking down the hallway of Alma Schrader wondering if I was real, or just something that God was dreaming. The wondering had less to do with religious conviction or familiarity with the concept of solipsism than my detached curiosity about whether Alana Featherstone knew that she got teased partly because of the juxtaposition of the image conjured up by her name with the actual sight of her body; it was dawning on me that taking things literally is cruel.

The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant, and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes, under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.

In my five-hundred-and something-page dissertation about ironic satire, I analyze the effects of various techniques on a writer’s ability to make his irony apparent to readers who don’t know him personally. So the irony of not being entirely consistent at making my tone of voice apparent in my writing is not lost on me.

When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner, we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea, we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed, and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

The other irony of having written all of that dissertation is that no one at the college where I work calls me by the professional title. One of my imaginary friends obligingly refers to me as “Doctor Professor,” though, which is kind and funny and goes a long way towards reconciling me to my local lot in life.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Who is an imaginary friend? Why, you might be one–imaginary friends are what I call those whose relationship with me is carried out online. My favorite surrealistic moment is when I finally get to walk up to those people and touch them, after months and years of talking to them… and then wait for the realization that what I’ve done is poke them. There are things we do online that we usually don’t do, in person.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

I had an imaginary friend who wrote back and forth with me every day for four years. Discovering that our conversation could end was as hard a lesson as discovering that professing will never make me a professor.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: ‘O love! O love!’ many times.

I believed in my imaginary friend like The Madwoman of Chaillot believes that her pearls will become real.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar; she said she would love to go.

‘And why can’t you?’ I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps, and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

‘It’s well for you,’ she said.

‘If I go,’ I said, ‘I will bring you something.’

Mailing something to you–a book, a card, a button for your lapel–is like touching you, readers. Making you feel something is touching by writing about it is much harder, a skill I’ve practiced for much of my life and still can’t perform half as well as many of those I love.

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised, and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

Words cast enchantments, and I’m as good at admiring the way it’s done as the boy is at gazing towards Mangan’s sister. Write for me; I’m yours. But as Wilbur observes in Charlotte’s Web: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening. He was fussing at the hallstand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:

‘Yes, boy, I know.’

As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlour and lie at the window. I felt the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.

When you long to see certain words badly enough to ignore your misgivings, it’s likely that you will fail to read with your usual amount of care. If you get really sloppy, you may begin trying to write your own version, seeing things from a slightly different perspective and not even realizing it.

When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.

When I came downstairs again I found Mrs Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old, garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late, as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:

‘I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.’

At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.

‘The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,’ he said.

I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:

‘Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.’

My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ He asked me where I was going and, when I told him a second time, he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.

Most people will respond as if you’re a Vogon tormentor if you recite poetry to them; an idea that seems all-consuming to one person is hardly ever all that important to anyone else. While some of us learn this as children, others finally get it through repetition.  Enough. Enough now.

I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girded at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.

Remembering with difficulty why I had come, I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.

‘O, I never said such a thing!’

‘O, but you did!’

‘O, but I didn’t!’

‘Didn’t she say that?’

‘Yes. I heard her.’

‘O, there’s a… fib!’

Observing me, the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

‘No, thank you.’

Whatever it is, however it comes, it takes time. It takes just a moment to read the letter of ruin, but after that it can take months of effort to come to terms with the idea that the world as you knew it is not what you thought it was.

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

Burning is the price of being foolishly faithful to an idea of what could be, if only the houses weren’t so dark and the people paying so little attention.  Now there is No Second Troy to burn.

Attention, attention must finally be paid. I am left to live up to my stated belief that necromancy doesn’t pay–that there will be no reward for gazing into the darkness, waiting for a flood to reverse itself, hoping for someone I made up to make up with me.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2012 7:20 am

    I am so sad reading this.

  2. March 26, 2012 8:43 am

    “Grief is the price we pay for love.” – Queen Elizabeth II


  3. March 26, 2012 10:31 am

    This took my breath away. You’re a far better writer than you think, I think.

    What I am left to ponder is whether there is any faith that is not, at least in some measure, inherently foolish? I suppose that’s what appeals to me about faith in the first place — the utter foolishness of it all. It’s foolish, maybe even crazy, to have faith/believe that love is stronger than death. But I do believe this in every cell of my being, whether the death is physical, psychological, emotional, verbal. Whatever. I maintain, and perhaps even rant, that love always wins, which may be the ultimate foolishness of all. But if one is to be a fool, then I suppose being a fool for love is the best kind of fool to be.

    In short, my cheer from the sidelines of your devastating losses is Fool on, my friend. You’re in fine company.

    • March 27, 2012 8:12 am

      It wasn’t false modesty about the writing–I meant that compared to those I love (like Philip Larkin, Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Heinlein, Douglas Adams, Anne Tyler, Nick Harkaway, Walker Percy), my writing will never measure up. Whose could?
      But yes, all a person can do is go on in her own foolish way and hope there will always be a few people who are amused, rather than annoyed.

  4. aartichapati permalink
    March 26, 2012 10:50 am

    Oh, Jeanne, I can completely understand why this post was so difficult and imminently personal for you to write. But I am so, so glad you did so because your writing is absolutely beautiful in the same way that makes my eyes tear up in a sort of perverse pleasure-pain when I read a deeply sad passage in a book. Grief and shattered faith- especially in friendship and idealism- are some of the most painful experiences that a person can go through, and I think that is why books about those circumstances really speak to readers- we all like to think that other people have experienced the same depths that we have.

    This post made me look at Araby with completely different eyes and really understand the deeper meaning and epiphany that Joyce was trying to get across- thank you so much for that.

    • March 27, 2012 8:23 am

      It’s such a small story, but to me, it’s always been the defining story of the volume. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this story is the only one that shows exactly what it feels like to realize that you have been exposed in feeling ardent about something that others don’t value half as much. I can’t argue that Joyce was trying to get this across, but it’s my response.

      • March 27, 2012 12:08 pm

        I’d forgotten how much I love his writing. I’m going to have to read the whole set again. There’s such a feeling of place (in the smallest sense of that), which I’m beginning to realize is really important to me.

  5. March 26, 2012 2:29 pm

    Not relevant, but Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in last Sunday’s NYT that she has always loved this sentence, “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” It’s a wonderful and very sad story, and perfect for this occasion.

    I read this last night and did not know what to say.

    Joy is right — you’re a wonderful writer — and I think all the commenters are right that it is better to have been a fool for love than never have loved at all, to conflate Joyhowie and Tennyson.

    This makes me sad, but remember that it isn’t always so — you and I have met, and we have both met other imaginary friends, too, and turned them into real friends. And for me, and maybe for you, too, this online community has been the thing that has saved us when we were buried in family obligations, or working at a job that didn’t really satisfy the whole of us, or when we were for reasons of family or jobs far away from any physical manifestation of our ideal spiritual communities. Sometimes it goes wrong, but often it goes really right.

    • March 27, 2012 8:28 am

      That often it goes really right is more of a miracle than I have fully appreciated, perhaps.


  1. The More Loving One | Necromancy Never Pays
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