Two days ago I went to a talk at the London Review Bookshop entitled The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things with Paula Byrne and John Mullan. These two authors have both recently published works on Austen, and realised that they shared common ground in their consideration of the treatment of “small things” in her work, hence the joint talk. I hadn’t read either of their books, but if they are as lively, learned and accessible in print as they are in person, and you are interested in Jane Austen, I would hazard a guess that seeking out their work would be time well spent.
So this got me thinking about the treatment of small things in literature and I came home to peruse my bookshelves and decide on which books to discuss in this post. I was struck by how many were suitable, how many look at the small things in our lives. I suppose novels lend themselves to this – it is an intimate form, taking us inside people’s heads, but via our own internal voice. The gap between ourselves and the story becomes almost imperceptible. Novels can detail the minutiae of life, and I often think that is where the intimacy is. You know a person well when you know the small things. A writer who knew the value of small things is oddly, a writer whose most famous work was epic. James Joyce, author of Ulysses, used to document what he called epiphanies, to use in his work. What exactly constitutes an epiphany and how to define it is a matter of debate, but I don’t think it matters that we can’t exactly say what they are. In Stephen Hero (an unpublished precursor to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) Joyce defines epiphanies as “the most delicate and evanescent of moments”. Not all of his recorded epiphanies survive, but an oft-quoted one is as follows:
“The Young Lady-(drawling discreetly) … 0, yes … I was … at the … cha … pel …
The Young Gentleman- (inaudibly) … I … (again inaudibly) … I …
The Young Lady-(softly) … 0 … but you’re … ve … ry … wick … ed .”
The meaning that Joyce found in this delicate, evanescent moment cannot be known for sure, but the epiphanies show us that this great writer took small matters seriously and sought out their truth.
If you’ve given Ulysses a bash & given up, you are far from alone. I only know one person who’s finished it. But don’t let that put you off Joyce entirely. Dubliners is a collection of 15 stories set in the Irish capital and is far more accessible than Ulysses. Deceptively so, as the more you look into the stories the more complex and multi-layered they reveal themselves to be, a bit like the small things in life that we actually attach great meaning to. But the stories can be read easily and a lot gained from doing so, without even exploring their complexities. They are written in groups of ages, starting off with tales of childhood, then young adulthood, progressing to the final story, The Dead. Eveline is the fourth story, (from the young adult group) and begins:
“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.”
In these opening three sentences Joyce evokes so much about Eveline’s situation through the small things: exactly why she is tired, why the curtains are dusty, and why she is looking out into the city become more apparent throughout the story, and these small things have a cumulative meaning of great significance. But Joyce never explicitly states the epiphanies of his stories, leaving it instead for the reader to extract meaning. The stories are determinedly small (like Austen’s “two inches of ivory”) but at the same time, by allowing readers to decide for themselves, Joyce ensures they are also limitless.
I saw Annie Proulx interviewed once and she said the short story was her favourite form as every word counts. Joyce described the style of Dubliners as one of “scrupulous meanness”, and he famously spent days constructing sentences: “the right words in the right order” (how did Ulysses ever get finished?), making every word count. I think this is what makes him both the perfect observer and constructor of small things.
In keeping with the theme of this post, I’m only discussing one book this time. There didn’t seem to be another one as perfect for this theme as Dubliners, so I decided it was clear I should keep the post a small thing in itself. (There were lots of contenders though; I’ll have to work out how to squeeze them into another theme). And rather than a photo, this time I’ll leave you with a question raised in this video of one of the greatest moments in one of the greatest sitcoms: are small things really small, or just far away……?