Dubliners

Dubliners (HarperCollins)

Read by Frank McCourt, Stephen Rea, Colm Meaney, and others.
(2000) HarperCollins, ISBN: 0-694-52300-3; Six cassettes, $34.95. [
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"The Sisters" -- Frank McCourt
"An Encoiunter" -- Patrick McCabe
"Araby" -- Colm Meany
"Eveline" -- Dearbhla Molloy
"After the Race" -- Dan O'Herlihy
"Two Gallants" -- Malachy McCourt
"The Boarding House" -- Donal Donnelly
"A Little Cloud" -- Brendan Coyle
"Counterparts" -- Jim Norton
"Clay" -- Sorcha Cusack
"A Painful Case" -- Ciaran Hinds
"Ivy Day in the Committee Room" -- T.P. McKenna
"A Mother" -- Fionnula Flanagan
"Grace" -- Charles Keating
"The Dead" -- Stephen Rea


Review by Allen B. Ruch

James Joyce's Dubliners must surely be one of the most recorded pieces of twentieth-century literature -- there are over a half-dozen audio versions of "The Dead" alone. So when HarperAudio/Caedmon announced that they were going to release a brand new unabridged set, one had to wonder whether there was really any need for such an indulgence. What could they possibly do that hasn't been done before?
The answer proved to be simple: Get it right. This set is an amazing accomplishment, an audio-book masterpiece that finally does justice to Joyce's poignant tales of epiphany and paralysis. Not since Sir Derek Jacobi's reading of the unabridged Iliad have I heard a better "book on tape," and as with the Iliad, it's refreshing to hear actual storytelling rather than radio-plays or dramatic monologues delivered by celebrities with little connection to the material. Caedmon has done a brilliant job in matching each story to a reader, resulting in fifteen readings as unique and personal as the stories themselves, each one glowing with individuality, color, and nuance. And yet remarkably, the entire set feels as completely integrated as if it had all been read by the same voice -- a tribute to both Joyce's narrative power and the sensitivity each interpreter brings to both his story and its place in the collection as a whole. Indeed, most of the readers are familiar with Joyce from previous experience, and their familiarity gives the set an accomplished ease, a genuine warmth, and a near-flawless execution. Additionally, despite a wide range of personal interpretation across each story, there are some common threads that act to knit them closer together. First and foremost, the entire cast is of Irish descent, and the wealth of accents and subtle shadings of language ring as true as the colorful cast of Dubliners themselves. Also, the readers have been encouraged to bring the dialogue to life, and a fine sense of theatrical awareness runs throughout the tales, bestowing a welcome sense of dramatic unity to these works of "scrupulous meanness."
Frank McCourt starts things off with a steady and slightly gruff reading of "The Sisters," his flat, working-class tone serving as an effective foil for both the narrator's repressed anger and the pathos of Father Flynn's paralysis. Next comes one of the highlights of the set, Patrick McCabe's reading of "An Encounter." Certainly the most disturbing and uneasy story in Dubliners, the author of the controversial The Butcher Boy gets right to the rotting core of the tale, telling it in a measured, almost confessional manner, as if he were relating a story from his own youth. The story is allowed to develop slowly, building a quiet momentum, so when the old man enters the picture, things seem already fraught with a sinister tension. McCabe brings off the dialogue brilliantly -- the old man's voice is hypnotic with its layers of false sweetness, seedy innuendo, and needy desperation. I have always favored "An Encounter," but hearing McCabe's rendition literally gave me chills, and reinforced the controversial daring of the story itself. The stories of the "childhood" section end with Colm Meany's account of "Araby," voiced in a tone of adolescent confusion, filled with equal mixtures of naive longing and self-deprecating bitterness.
The stories of "adolescence" come next, and here gears shift a bit, and with the exception of "Eveline," the next few stories acquire a pitch of mocking irony that masks the tragic emptiness below the characters' blustery lives. "Eveline," however, is given a very close and sympathetic reading by Dearbhla Molloy, who delivers the heartbreaking last few sentences with a devastating finality. This sense of personal despair is immediately skewered by Dan O'Herlihy, whose resonant baritone imparts "After the Race" with enough false warmth and twinkling good cheer to raise Joyce's irony to a completely new level. Malachy McCourt grants "Two Gallants" a similar, but less expansive, style, voicing his gallants with a charmless seediness that marks their "conquest" with a sharp halo of black humor. Donal Donnelly adds to the tales of deception with a deadpan reading of "The Boarding House," his literal manner highlighting Joyce's evasive prose and deftly touching each reverie with shades of selfishness, fecklessness, and doubt.
The rest of the stories are the "adulthood/public life" tales, and as a rule are longer than the previous ones. The quality of the earlier readings still holds true, and wisely many are given an entire side of a cassette, or in the case of "Grace" and "The Dead," an entire cassette of their own. "A Little Cloud" touches off this round, and is another high point of the collection. Brendan Coyle brings his Tony Award winning talents to bear on Little Chandler and Ignatius Gallaher, and he calls them to life with a magnificent ease -- their conversation swirls with rich undercurrents, and the shallow worldliness he shows in Gallaher is matched by the dull anger, fruitless dreams, and unfocused frustration coloring Chandler's internal world. A similar sensitivity to interpersonal dialogue is brought to "Counterparts" by Jim Norton, who tells his story with a dynamic range of theatrical devices -- his Mr. Alleyne is quite a creation, and almost makes the onerous Farrington more sympathetic. "Clay" follows, and Sorcha Cusack gives a reading of the spinster's story that seems to echo a children's tale read out loud before nap-time. Her fairy-tale cadences serve to underscore the brittle nature of Maria's reality, the story of an aging woman who can't quite emotionally mature, surrounded by superficial affection and oblivious to the symbols of emptiness that surround her life. The "adulthood" stories close with Ciaran Hinds and "A Painful Case." His reading is refined, slightly detatched, and perfectly timed; and one can sense a repressed world of pain and hollowness behind every turn of phrase. Like a rigid smile hiding a tragic interior, when it finally cracks the feeling of despair is overwhelming.
With T.P. McKenna and "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" comes a return to a theatrical reading style, and McKenna invests his cast of characters with such an abundance of energy and personality that it's difficult to believe a single reader is behind the narration. Yet another gem in this fine collection, McKenna maintains an acute awareness of the many subtleties in the story, and an undercurrent of repressed bitterness manifests in the deliciously understated sarcasm of the final sentence. "A Mother" is also visited by a similar sarcasm, hovering just below the surface of Fionnula Flanagan's gossipy mien of mock-propriety. The penultimate story, "Grace," is read by Charles Keating, who continues the drama but mellows the sense of cynicism into an almost affectionate sense of parody -- despite the pompous and ill-starred ways of Kernan and his ilk, Keating grants them the closest thing to "grace" in the entire cast of adult Dubliners.
The final story is, of course, "The Dead," and it given over to Stephen Rea, who makes for an excellent choice to close the collection. Rea is an actor who radiates a thought-tormented complexity, and his laconic exterior and self-deprecating manner seem to conceal a wounded heart that can't help but spill over. His reading of "The Dead" touches upon nearly every nuance in the text, and endows a glowing warmth and a gentle sense of humor upon the holiday gathering. His characters are loving and sensitive, coming together as a family and friends, but not without the occasional rough edge or hurtful insinuation. Rea's Gabriel is appropriately aloof and yet affectionate, a nervous and perhaps over-analytical intellectual plagued by feelings of doubt and self-recrimination. He is especially adept at voicing Gabriel's internal musings, and his distracted desires to be away from the crowd are brushed with a wistful longing just restrained enough to hold our sympathy. The famous final scene comes off beautifully.
The last tape closes with a reading of the credits, an almost jarring reminder that one has not, in fact, been in a different time and place. And in the end, you realize that this is exactly what this set has done -- transported you to the sad but universal city of the Dubliners, placing you more firmly in Joyce's complex world than any other adaptation has ever managed. A remarkable achievement in every way.

--Allen B. Ruch
23 March 2000

 

Additional Information\

Caedmon Audio Page -- The entry for Dubliners on the HarperAudio/Caedmon Web site.

Frank McCourt reading "The Sisters" -- From the MP3.lit.com Web site.

Additional Reviews

LA Times -- The following review was posted to the alt.books.james-joyce list, and is excerpted from the LA Times:

One of the classiest productions ever released on audio is a new edition of Dubliners by James Joyce. Fifteen readers, each with a different approach and style, bring these portraits to life. In his newly minted stream-of-consciousness style, Joyce portrayed human nature with tales of pettiness and epiphany, sexual awakening, desire and death. This was his first published work, which he called a series of chapters in the oral history of his community. Listening to stories first published in 1922, we are struck by both the immediacy and the contemporary feel of stories set in a time of horse-drawn carriages. Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, begins the anthology with a smooth, rather solemn narration. Hinds and Rea are standouts, each conjuring up powerful emotions with an astute restraint and a crystal-clear understanding of the text. Meaney, Malachy McCourt and Donnelly bring high energy to their stories, while Molloy enhances the sad desperation of "Eveline." If there is one weak spot, it is McCabe's reading of "The Encounter." This author of The Butcher Boy may capture the story's sexuality, but his energy is too low.

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