After dipping in and out of it all summer I finally got around to finishing Dubliners yesterday. Especially in the earlier stories I was struck by the many fancy descriptions of evening light. A friend recently told me that photographers and filmmakers like to shoot at “magic hour,” the time before sunset when the quality of the light changes and everything acquires a lovely golden glow. It struck me reading these that the concept was alive and well even before we invented video cameras. Here are some of the bits I wrote down as I went through Dubliners, referencing the story that each appears in.
It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds.
The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.
Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur.
After the Race:
They walked northward with a curious feeling of disappointment in the exercise, while the city hung its pale globes of light above them in a haze of summer evening.
A Little Cloud:
The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures – on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens.
I’m noticing that many of these, rather than describing “magic hour” light, describe artificial illumination in the evenings. Anyway. The last story in Dubliners, The Dead, has an opening section very much in the style of many of the other stories: describing in some detail a social occasion and the many interactions that happen in a crowd of people. But in its final ten or so pages it follows just one couple as they make their way from the party and the writing ascends to a higher state during which line follows line of startlingly evocative imagery. I could have pulled just about any line, but I thought the following one was brilliant in the way it describes a shadow by showing us the light surrounding it:
Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering across the floor: he could not eat for happiness.
Finally, it feels as though all of these descriptions of light are building up to something. You could argue that they culminate in what is maybe Joyce’s most celebrated description, as Mr. Bloom and Stephen Dedalus emerge into a garden towards the end of Ulysses, and look up:
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.