I recently edited half a dozen stories from James Joyce’s “Dubliners” for the Read With Audrey library. Audrey is a space where people can meet online and read books aloud together. Quite apart from the exposure to literature, reading together reminds us of how much we have in common, and encourages empathy and compassion. I’m proud to support it.
The Audrey format requires stories to be edited into 10-15 minute reads. The early stories in “Dubliners” are apprentice pieces and very easy to edit—but not so rewarding to read: I avoided them. The quality increases throughout the book, until you reach “The Dead” at the end—which was an incredibly tough edit, and which I treated as a novella rather than a short story—turning it into 5 episodes in its own right.
Editing taught me a lot. I learned the obvious lesson that it’s easy to compress poor writing, whereas the good stuff is highly resistant. Like all great writers Joyce took care with the framing of his stories; I did not touch the opening paragraph of a story if at all possible, and never the closing one. This was especially important when a story had a “quiet” ending. If a story is capped by a twist or an aphorism, you only have to preserve the bare bones of the ending—you can edit the rest as you wish. Quiet endings can’t be touched: Joyce worked hard on the effect he wanted to achieve and editing the words, however gently, broke it.
I generally went through several rounds of incremental editing until I got the stories down to the required length. The first edit was easy—getting rid of naturalistic, but inessential, repetition in dialogue, for example. Next I made edits that simplified the story so that it was easier to read out loud, and easier to understand when heard without the text in front of you. That was satisfying, but I had the nagging doubt that by simplifying I was also impoverishing. By the fourth or fifth round of editing I was aware that I was not just simplifying, but coarsening the story; at this point it became a case of trying to minimise the damage rather than doing good work.
The opening of “A Painful Case” is a good example:
Mr James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious. He lived in an old sombre house and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built. The lofty walls of his uncarpeted room were free from pictures. He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table on which lay a double desk. The bed was clothed with white bedclothes and a black and scarlet rug covered the foot. A little hand-mirror hung above the washstand.
That is my edited version, and is a third the length of Joyce’s original. Joyce’s opening is a masterpiece of concision establishing Duffy’s precise physical surroundings, his personality, his habits, his hobbies, and his life story to date—often by implication rather than exposition. The threads in the paragraph run through the whole of the rest of the story—for example right at the end of the story Duffy looks “along the shallow river on which Dublin is built” just as he does in the first paragraph. It broke my heart to do the edit, but I persisted because I know from my own family that there are some things that you can only get from reading aloud to each other—and Joyce’s story is still there in its intact entirety for anyone inspired to read it.