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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whiskey:  PowersJohn’s Lane 12 years

http://www.powerswhiskey.com

The Books:  Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas and The Dubliners by James Joyce

Literary Dublin of a century ago calls for a dram to which James Joyce himself would give the nod.

THE WHISKEY

Bright gold, with a darkened orange glow and looking very smart in the glass. A dried fruit-filled nose — sweetish, dense and lively. On the palate, smooth yet chewy, sun-dried spice and caramel. Warm, intense, purposeful, an altogether superior dram. Lingers long, and with the best of intentions. (non-chillfiltered, 46% abv)

Powers whiskey dates to 1791, when innkeeper James Power opened the John’s Lane Distillery on St. Thomas Street in Dublin. Over time it prospered, and by 1871, rebuilt in a grand Victorian style, it occupied seven acres, employed 300 people, and distilled nearly a million gallons a year. It was a Dublin landmark, renowned for its pot still whiskies.

When Alfred Barnard, author of the monumental “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” visited in 1886 he was more than impressed. Of the kilns he wrote: “. . .indeed elegant buildings. . .with open groined roofs, lined with wood and stained oak, like small English parish churches, in fact superior to many we have seen.” And so the spirit moved him. “The old make… was delicious and finer than anything we had hitherto tasted. It was as perfect in flavour, and as pronounced in the ancient aroma of Irish Whisky as dear to hearts of connoisseurs, as one could possible desire…”

In 1966 Powers, together with Jameson and Cork Distilleries, joined forces under the umbrella of Irish Distillers Ltd. Within a few years Powers’ Dublin operations had closed and was moved to County Cork. Over time the question arose as to what was the taste of the best spirit of the old John’s Lane Distillery. In other words, what had gotten Barnard so fired up?

Hence, the John’s Lane, first released in 2011. Whiskey in the style that made Powers famous —  a special mash of malted and unmalted barley that is triple-distilled in traditional copper single pot stills, aged for 12 years, mostly in first-fill American bourbon casks, with a small amount in Spanish oloroso butts.

The result is a fine, historic example of single pot still whiskey that feels like it could have come straight off the production line in 19th century Dublin.

THE BOOKS

Samuel Riba, the anxiety-driven Spaniard at the centre of Dublinesque, is obsessed with Dublin. Unfortunately for him he lives in Barcelona and speaks no English. A newly retired literary publisher, he’s sorely disillusioned with the state of literature, prone to continuously grieving that he had never published a writer of genius. In what he conceives as a grand gesture, Riba gathers a disparate group of male friends and plans a pilgrimage to the city of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to coincide with Bloomsday, June 16, the day Joyce’s novel unfolds. It will be a funeral for the printed page.

It does not go well. His cohorts are unpredictable and veer from what Riba has in mind. They are prone to drinking sprees while Riba has sworn off alcohol, having solemnly promised his wife he would under no circumstances slip off the wagon. More disconcerting is the roaming, mysterious figure of a thin, bespectacled young man in a trench coat, looking all to much like Joyce’s protégé, Samuel Beckett.

If all this resembles metafictional play with an underlying seriousness, then take comfort that you are in the hands of Enrique Vila-Matas. He is a contemporary master of the genre-bending novel, who long ago eschewed traditional plot and character development as outdated and no longer of any real service to the reader.

Other approaches achieve more interesting ends. To Vila-Matas the author is as much a part of what he has read as he is of personal experience. Literary references abound, far beyond Joyce and Beckett — to Philip Larkin, Nabokov, Paul Auster, Tom Waits, David Cronenberg, Coldplay. The list goes on. Dublinesque is a contorted travelogue, a narrative essay somewhat in the shape of a novel. It is also great fun.

In the end it is about one man coping with the world in which he has found himself, plowing through, oscillating between joy and despair, making what he can of a wife who has turned to Buddhism, parents he can never satisfy, and companions who seem one unspannable step from deeper friendship.

Vila-Matas has written, “We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality.”

In his view reality cannot be “trapped and narrated.” Writers should give up trying. Vila-Matas has written dozens of books, translated into some thirty languages, to support his argument.

Vila-Mantas returns again and again to James Joyce. He is a founding member of a group calling itself the Order of the Finnegans, whose members venerate Joyce’s Ulysses. He is likely less taken with Joyce’s first book and its multi-layered realism (or in Vila-Matas mind, what passes for realism).

The Dubliners, despite how far some authors, including Joyce himself, have veered from its approach to fiction, is a stunning collection of short stories, as memorable as any set to print in the hundred years since it was published. Again and again it sets language adrift from the story itself, universal in its simplicity and depth, taking the reader, as the sequence of the stories do, from childhood to old age.

“The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” (Araby)

“She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed: and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.” (A Mother)

“One by one they were all becoming shades.” (The Dead)

To which I would add, “The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.” (Grace)

The book was written when Joyce was in his early 20s, about the Dublin that he knew, its streets and dwellings holding secrets only the most keen observer of human nature could capture with such unobtrusive insight. The stories give their characters space to be who they are without judgement, almost without authorial direction. They are who they are, our entry into their lives often cut abruptly, as if to say, you had your look, move on. Life goes on.

The manuscript of The Dubliners was rejected by a total of fifteen publishers. Some thought parts crude, sacrilegious, libellous, (twice it got as far as the printer, who refused to bring it to press). No one, however, would deny its mastery of language. By the time it was published, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was in print and Ulysses was already taking shape. The Dubliners sold a few hundred copies and fell out of view.

Only to come to light years later as the ground-breaking work that it is. Maybe for postmodernists, it can’t capture reality. But for the rest of us it connects to our own reality and that is meaningful and very good.

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