James Joyce and Helsinki streets

My wife Niina just spent a week in Dublin and brought me back a souvenir. I was both excited and a bit apprehensive about her gift, because she brought me James Joyce’s Dubliners.

I have had some problems with Joyce in the past. Twice I’ve tried to read Ulysses, and twice I’ve given up. Everyone says how brilliant the book is, but I’ve found myself getting bored with it before the half-way point. My relationship with Dubliners started poorly, too. I was less than impressed with it after the first couple of short stories. Actually, I strongly suspected that some of the stories were conceived, written, revised, proofed, edited and finished in one day, perhaps in one morning. But Joyce was quite young when he wrote it, so I lowered my expectations and kept reading. I’m such an idiot.

James Joyce's statue on the streets of Dublin

I’m an idiot because Dubliners is magnificent. If you aren’t familiar with the book, it is a series of short stories about people in Dublin. Each short story is a stand-alone narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but each is also one thread woven into a grand tapestry of middle-class life in the city. It begins with children, journeys through adulthood, and ends with the elderly. A kid meets a creepy stranger, a young woman has a crisis regarding marriage, an alcoholic worries about money and beats his son, and a man goes to a party hosted by his aged aunts and muses upon death.

The thing that really struck me about Dubliners is its structure. When you are on the streets of a metropolis you pass hundreds of faceless people who simply melt into the background of the urban landscape. Yet each person has his own story, his own triumphs, his own crises, and his own narrative. There is a self-contained narrative with each and every person. Joyce does it masterfully, but it is not a new idea. In fact, making up and telling those stories is a little mental game I like to play.

When I’m on the metro, or walking the streets of Helsinki, I like to make up stories about the people I see. In my head, I describe what they are wearing, create a history, and construct a story for them. One young girl is on her way to tell her boyfriend that she is pregnant and she is terrified because she has no idea how he will react. A man in a suit is on his way to a job interview, desperate for employment because he is destitute and about to be evicted. An old lady is on her way to the cemetery to have a conversation with her dead husband, bitter and regretful for all the things she left unsaid while he was alive.

One of the rules for fiction is to dream up the worst thing imaginable for your character and then put them through it, so often the stories I dream up are quite dramatic. I imagine that if these people knew what I was thinking they would be horrified. So if you ever see me staring at you on the streets of Helsinki, you probably shouldn’t ask what I’m thinking.

Basically, for a long time I’ve been creating my version of Dubliners in my head. (Although it doesn’t sound right in English: “Helsinkiers.” It sounds much better in Finnish: “Helsinkiläiset.”) Although there are similarities between Dubliners and what I’ve been doing, there are major differences. For one, my little mental games are just that: a way to practice descriptions and short narratives. It’s commonly taught in creative writing classes, and I find it both useful and fun to keep practicing it. None of it is ever written down. Also, Dubliners has a unifying theme of sorts, while the only unifying factor in my stories is the fact I’ve seen these people somewhere in public.

If you are interested in the crafting of fiction, I recommend this little exercise. It is a great way to practice the act of creation. But to do it properly, I encourage you to write these stories down. Who knows? Maybe I’ll do it someday, too.

Posted in The Blog
4 comments on “James Joyce and Helsinki streets
  1. Hank W. says:

    “One of the rules for fiction is to dream up the worst thing imaginable for your character and then put them through it, so often the stories I dream up are quite dramatic.”

    Naah, you’re pussyfooting. Here’s the same story, only I am visualising it as a film script.

    “One young girl is on her way to tell her boyfriend that she is pregnant and she is terrified because she has no idea how he will react.”

    The boyfriend, a failed asylum shopper with 13 different aliases is elated, as he falsely believes fathering a child will grant him a residence permit. However he acts aloof and takes the girls phone to do some “business”. He notices the girl has recently called an abortion clinic and gets all upset, beating the girl up. The girl escapes and convinced she is doomed steps in front of a train at her suburban station.

    “A man in a suit is on his way to a job interview, desperate for employment because he is destitute and about to be evicted.”

    The man has been “keeping up appearances” to his wife, not telling her that he’s been sacked. They live in a posh flat on an expensive street with two kids. The golden handshake is running out and the bank is threatening with foreclosure. The man goes to the interview (the third round) nervous, and the interviewer promises to call him by the end of the day. (Its Friday). No call comes. The man gives the family a mickey of sleeping pills, strangles the children and shoots his wife and himself.

    “An old lady is on her way to the cemetery to have a conversation with her dead husband, bitter and regretful for all the things she left unsaid while he was alive.”

    Nice floating images of 1950’s helsinki and dramatic scenes. Comes reality: The old lady and the boyfriend of scene 1 meet at the street at the side gate of the cemetary. The boyfriend nicks the old ladys purse and pushes her over so she falls to the ground cracking her hip. The boyfriend runs over the street and is rammed down by an ambulance thats carrying his girlfriends corpse.

    Next Monday morning in the metro a slightlu dishevelled man (the interviewer) is reminiscing his wild weekend binge after landing a big project, hes reading the news of a murder-suicide in the posh address in the morning paper, and thinking he needs to call that nervous guy and tell him hes got the job and come sign his papers.

    In a hospital ward room, theres a train driver and an ambulance driver waiting to go into a group therapy session for traffic accidents…. you need to add a few persons still, need a truck driver and a young angry boy, couple of drunks in the park and a bottle-collector, and the policeman who has to look at all these cases doing something…

  2. David says:

    Actually, Hank, the story I made up about the guy going to a job interview was very similar to your idea!

  3. Eva says:

    In the same vein, if you haven’t already, you should try Camilo José Cela’s The Hive.

  4. Marita says:

    For years I have done this “exercise” as you call it. Although I am not a writer nor have I ever taken a creative writing class. It is a form of therapy for me . I imagine things about strangers, co-workers or even myself. Maybe to take my mind off of other matters or to try and prepare myself for what may happen regarding a specific incident or happening. My mind seems to be in constant motion with words, phrases and the like. I’ve never considered writing them down. I highly doubt they would be of interest to anyone but myself.

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