James Joyce’s (and John Huston’s) The Dead “is the greatest Christmas story.”


Probably I read James Joyce’s Dubliners during college or shortly thereafter. It is a compelling collection of short stories completed by Joyce during his pre-WWI residency in Trieste, and published in 1914.

For me Dubliners is a must-read, and I plan to make it a re-read during the coming weeks. Also, a re-watch; somewhere in a box secreted in our house’s dusty nooks you’ll find a video cassette of The Dead, John Huston’s final film. The Dead is a long story, perhaps a novella, and Huston’s adaptation is a short film, although no less compelling for its brevity.

The Economist’s pseudonymous columnist plainly gets it, and so should we all: “The festive season has summoned every weeping ghost.” So it will remain for me, always.

Forget “A Christmas Carol” — “The Dead” is the greatest Christmas story, by Prospero (The Economist)

James Joyce’s captivating tale is one of love, loss and loneliness

ALMOST EVERYONE who watches television in Ireland will have seen a Christmas commercial for Guinness—first aired in 2004—in which snowflakes drop softly over a variety of Irish landscapes. Although the writer got no credit from the advertising agency, this panorama of longing and nostalgia draws on James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”. Joyce’s tale concludes (freakishly, in purely meteorological terms) with snowfall “general all over Ireland”. His snow unites past and present, memory and desire, as it blankets “all the living and the dead”.

“The Dead” is among the finest short stories in the English language. Astonishingly, it came from the pen of an impoverished and insecure 25-year-old language teacher in Trieste. In that Italian city, ruled then like the Dublin he had left by a haughty imperial power (Austro-Hungary rather than Great Britain), the self-exiled Joyce lived and wrote. He sought for years to find a reliable publisher for the collection eventually released, in 1914, as “Dubliners”. Written in 1907, “The Dead” displays all the virtuosity of an author who can already do anything he wants in conventional fiction. Like Pablo Picasso, his near-contemporary, Joyce would soon break all the rules of the art he had so precociously mastered.

For more than a century, readers have loved “The Dead” for its bittersweet melancholy and its mingled threads of festivity and mourning. It inspired John Huston’s film of 1987, the great actor-director’s poignant swansong …

As for Huston’s adaptation, this from film critic Pauline Kael:

Huston directed the movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most of the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before – funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. Huston never before blended his actors so intuitively, so musically.”