The Power of Revision

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Hello readers! I hope everyone enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday!

This week, let’s consider the magical, transformative powers of revision. For our sample piece, we’ll look at two versions James Joyce’s short story, “The Sisters”. Joyce was only twenty-two when “The Sisters” was first published in The Irish Homestead Journal. He received £1 for his work. Glaring stylistic differences distinguish the 1904 text from the version published ten years later in Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners. The opening paragraphs of the 1904 Homestead text read as follows:

Three nights in succession I had found myself in Great Britain-street at that hour, as if by Providence. Three nights also I had raised my eyes to that lighted square of window and speculated. I seemed to understand that it would occur at night. But in spite of the Providence that had led my feet, and in spite of the reverent curiosity of my eyes, I had discovered nothing. Each night the square was lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. It was not the light of candles, so far as I could see. Therefore, it had not yet occurred.

On the fourth night at that hour I was in another part of the city. It may have been the same Providence that led me there – a whimsical kind of Providence to take me at a disadvantage. As I went home I wondered was that square of window lighted as before, or did it reveal the ceremonious candles in whose light the Christian must take his last sleep. I was not surprised, then, when at supper I found myself a prophet. Old Cotter and my uncle were talking at the fire, smoking. Old Cotter is the old distiller who owns the batch of prize setters. He used to be very interesting when I knew him first, talking about “faints” and “worms.” Now I find him tedious.

While I was eating my stirabout I heard him saying to my uncle:
            

“Without a doubt. Upper storey – (he tapped an unnecessary hand at his forehead) – gone.”

Not bad, but nowhere near what we’ve come to expect from Joyce. Move ahead to 1914: The opening paragraphs of “The Sisters” in Dubliners are barely recognizable:

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: I am not long for this world and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.
            

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:
            

“No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly… but there was something queer… there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion?”
            

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms, but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

The Dubliners version shows extensive editing and a deliberate shift towards a modernist voice. The language, the characterizations, and the relationships between the characters are completely reimagined. Amazing what ten years’ time and a little editorial elbow grease (and one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary minds – but let’s not dwell on that) can do to transform a piece of writing. Here at CambridgeEditors, we can’t promise you’ll be the net Joyce, but we can help you with the reimagining and improvement of your draft as it evolves into a completed work.

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