What to do on a wet gray day? Drink coffee. Read a book.
A lot of people say what they like most about winter is how the gray weather affords more opportunities to read. My book group is reading “The Other Alcott,” a novel by Elise Hooper, a literary fiction based on the life of May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s baby sister. In real life and the novel, May chafes at how she’s been portrayed in her sister’s first book, “Little Women,” a novel based on the real life Alcott sisters. To make matters worse, while the novel itself is deemed a success, May’s illustrations for the novel are met with critical ridicule. May, a trained artist who studied with painting masters in Boston and then Europe, revolts against living under her more successful sister’s thumb, the most difficult issue being that it’s Louisa who provides most of the financial support for her younger sister’s art career. If it weren’t for book group, I’d never have read the book, but I found myself drawn in, even though as a child I despised “Little Women.”
As soon as I put it down, however, I plunged into a copy of James Joyce’s “The Dubliners” I took out of the library. While I am very fond of all the bookstores in the immediate area, there’s only so many books I can buy. I picked it up because not long ago I was having a conversation in a coffee shop with a man who said he’d always planned on reading James Joyce, but being a slow reader, he felt put off by the length and depth of “Ulysses,” “Finnegan’s Wake” was out of the question. He remembered reading something by Joyce at his prep school in ninth grade, but he couldn’t remember the name.
“Most likely it was ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’” I volunteered. “Many people read that in ninth or 10th grade.”
I suggested if he wanted to read something quintessentially Joyce that would only take a few days, he try “The Dead,” a story Joyce published in 1914. It’s the final story, almost a novella, in the collection called “The Dubliners.” The story takes place almost entirely at a holiday party in Dublin hosted at the home of a pair of middle class spinsters and their grown niece who lives with them. The party is a musicale with singers and dancing and there is a special guest, a tenor who has sung on a London stage. The spinsters’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy, arrives late with his wife Gretta. A frisson of tension rears its head between Conroy and a female guest who accuses Conroy of not being Irish enough and supporting the English political control of Ireland. Conroy, discomfited, is already anxious about a speech and toast he’s promised to give. But what spoils the evening for him entirely is learning by night’s end about a young man named Michael Furey, long dead, who still captures his wife’s heart and romantic imagination. Before this evening, he never knew of the young man. My favorite part of the story, however, isn’t this part. What I love most is a short section that takes place by the front door just as the party is breaking up.
“Good-night, Mr. D’Arcy. Good-night, Miss O’Callaghan.”
“Good-night, Miss Morkan.”
“Good-night, all. Safe home.”
“Good-night. Good night.”
I was ruminating on the sonorous beauty of Joyce’s prose I sat nursing a coffee at Sleepy Monk in Cannon Beach. It was a drizzly afternoon, and chilly. I thought about how coastal Ireland probably doesn’t look or feel much different from Oregon’s north coast. The winter weather is much the same: rain, rain, and more rain. I thought about my friend, the former Lady Self, who I met in Bedford, New York over a decade ago, not long before she married an Englishman who was in the House of Lords. He owned a small castle on the Irish coast. The marriage didn’t last and she had to relinquish the title, although I believe she got the house. I imagined how, like me, she might be passing a little time on a late February afternoon in a charming café, eyeing a cheddar-and-bacon scone or a molasses cookie before regretfully thinking of her waistline, saying, “That will just be coffee (or tea), please.”