A Little Cloud by James Joyce, 1914
The magic trick:
Perfectly inhabiting a protagonist who is in a position that must be dissimilar to that of the author
In reading so many short stories lately one annoyance I encounter at times is the all-too-obvious connections a story might have to the author’s own life. Sure, they might cover it up by making the protagonist a struggling painter, or a thoughtful dancer, instead of a writer, but they ain’t foolin’ nobody. Their little work of fiction is a thinly disguised bit of personal memoir. Which I want to make clear is fine. It’s fine. These are still very good stories. The ruse is just sometimes annoying. Don’t try to act like this protagonist isn’t you. I’m looking at you, Lorrie Moore.
Anyway, rant over. I only say that now because one of the most amazing things about this amazing collection, Dubliners, is James Joyce’s ability to inhabit many different kinds of characters, clearly not based on himself. Case in point, our poor protagonist in “A Little Cloud.” He is approaching middle age. He has a job, a wife, a newborn baby. But most of all he has the regret of an artistic talent never developed. The section in which he longs to capture in a poem the feelings of melancholy he has near a bridge during his walk home, well, it’s just utterly brilliant in its realism. You completely feel this man’s sad little hopes and dreams along with him. And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
Every step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own sober inartistic life. A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind. He was not so old – thirty-two. His temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity. There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd, but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics, perhaps, would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notice which his book would get. `Mr Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse’… `A wistful sadness pervades these poems’… `The Celtic note’. It was a pity his name was not more Irish-looking. Perhaps it would be better to insert his mother’s name before the surname: Thomas Malone Chandler; or better still: T. Malone Chandler. He would speak to Gallaher about it.