1916 – portrait of the artist as a young man ~ james joyce

I’ve got two words for you this week: James Joyce.

When I first started Book to the Future in April this year, I admitted that I’ve never read James Joyce. Yes, I managed to get through a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree (as well as an Honours year in Comparative Literature) without ever picking up a single James Joyce book. Oh, the shame…

For anyone who hasn’t spent years hanging around a University English department, let me explain. Literary types don’t agree on anything. Ever. Apart from one concrete, irrefutable fact: James Joyce is the shit. Every time they utter his name, it’s usually hushed, and in combination with the words “genius” and “masterpiece”.

In literary circles, Joyce is the coolest kid in school. He’s the literary equivalent of The Beatles. Because everyone who knows anything about music loves The Beatles. How can you NOT like the Beatles??

I love The Beatles.

But…here’s my problem…I don’t love James Joyce.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

Published in 1916

From the moment I read the very first sentence, I knew I was in trouble. A lot of trouble…

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….”

– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, page 3

I must have been absolutely barking to think I could have read James Joyce’s first major work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in just one week. Barking. Woof.

At first glance, it doesn’t look too intimidating. It’s a slight volume, coming in at a mere two hundred and seventy six pages. But don’t let the size of this book deceive you for even a moment. Portrait is much like a bear trap. One false move, and it could take your leg off. Or, more accurately, rip your mind out, stick it in a blender, then pour it back into your ear.

The problem? Portrait is written in a style that’s generally referred to as “stream of consciousness” writing (or “bollocks”, as I like to call it). Hence, for example, we’re right in the middle of the main character having a conversation with two boys from his class, when all of a sudden we’re thrown backwards in time to an earlier period in his life, when the same two boys made fun of him. This technique makes it increasingly difficult to work out what’s actually going on from one moment to the next.

Set in Dublin in the late nineteenth century, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the story of Stephen Daedalus – a fictionalised version of James Joyce himself, as the book’s title tells us. At the beginning of Portrait, James/Stephen is a young child, which is reflected in the childish language in which this section of the story is written. As Stephen grows older, the language of the book changes, grows more sophisticated, until it eventually becomes his own. As Stephen (literally) finds his voice as an artist in the final pages of the book, the narrative switches to first person, written as a series of diary entries.

The plot? It’s kinda difficult to explain, because it’s made up of a lot of different episodes. But here’s the basic gist of it – or my understanding of it, at least…

Stephen grows up in an enormous, constantly broke Catholic family. Despite the family’s poverty, Stephen is sent to a boarding school, where he misses home and daydreams about being dead.

The family move (again) and Stephen is sent to another school, and this time, he makes an effort to concentrate; to fit in. He’s hailed as a hero after he stands up for himself when he’s punished unjustly. At sixteen or so, he wins a great big pile of cash after taking first place in an essay competition, which he spends on his family, taking them out for dinner and buying them presents. Oh – and he’s also able to afford to take up an expensive new hobby: going to see prostitutes.

Stephen’s class goes on a religious retreat, where a teacher gives a long, loooooong lecture about the nature of Hell and damnation that terrifies Stephen into going to confession. After this, he considers being a priest – but he turns this option down, deciding that he is meant to be an artist. He goes to University, but, still unsatisfied, and feeling as if he doesn’t belong, decides to leave his old life completely, and make a new beginning for himself somewhere else.

What was it specifically about Portrait that I didn’t like? It doesn’t flow like a stream of consciousness should. I had to bribe myself to keep reading. Just five more pages, just ten more minutes, just until the end of this section. Reading shouldn’t be like that. Joyce’s so-called stream of consciousness technique didn’t strike me as being particularly genuine. There were times when I simply couldn’t keep track of what was happening, what the characters were talking about. Times when I had to keep reading the words. hoping that something would start making sense soon.

Call me old-fashioned, call me stupid, but I believe that reading shouldn’t be this way. I think reading should be enjoyable. I think that a well-written book should keep the reader thinking and questioning – but not to the point where it’s simply no fun. Joyce simply asks too much of his readers.

Add to that the fact that the edition I read is littered with hundreds upon hundreds of endnotes, some more useful than others. Constantly referring to the endnotes interrupted my reading even further, making it even more difficult to keep track of what was happening. Gah.

It’s not that I have a problem with unconventional narratives. I can deal with that. I adored Nostromo, remember. And it’s not as if I’m a lazy reader, who simply doesn’t want to do any work. I love books that strain my brain – Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov are two of my favourite authors ever.

The thing is, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reads like a private joke – a joke I simply don’t get. Joyce takes perverse pleasure in writing something that deliberately locks the reader out. That’s what I found most annoying about Portrait. It’s pretentious. Joyce is like a literary hipster, reveling in himself and his own cleverness.

But that’s not to say that I hated this book. I didn’t. I’m not giving it the lowest rating on my (highly professional) Book to the Future Rating Scale, either. Because there’s something about Portrait, some saving grace that prevents me from total condemnation.

It’s the writing. When he’s not trying to be clever and complicated, Joyce’s writing is so breathtakingly beautiful.

For me, Portrait started to come to life right in the middle, when Stephen and his class are subjected to a whopping lecture on Hell. Even though this lecture continued on, uninterrupted, for pages and pages, I found it strangely compelling. And gruesome! And Stephen’s total acceptance, then rejection of religion and the moment of pure epiphany that follows is described in writing that’s amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Here’s a taste:

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childing and girlish in the air.

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea-bird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh…”

– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, page 185

I could keep going. That moment of sudden, amazingly beautiful clarity after chapters and chapters of murky quirkiness sent me into bliss. That phrase, “the wild heart of life” – at that moment, I forgave the book all its past crimes. The slate was clear.

If only Portrait had either ended with that scene, I’d have loved this book. But it doesn’t. When Stephen goes to University, the narrative takes a downwards slide again. He spends a lot of time arguing with his friends in Latin, discussing theories of the nature of beauty, and generally acting like an insufferable twat. Whyyy?

It’s heartbreaking, knowing that Joyce is capable of such startlingly lyrical writing – but he’s going to bore the pants off the reader for the remainder of the book. There’s another hint of brilliance right at the end of the book, but just when it’s beginning to gain momentum…the book’s over.

I didn’t hate A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But I really, really didn’t enjoy it, either. And I desperately wanted to like this book. After all, it’s James Joyce. James Joyce! What kind of a literature lover doesn’t like James Joyce?!?

The student in me is shaking her head in shame. After all, James Joyce is a genius, right? If I don’t love this book; if I don’t get it, then what does that say about me…?

I guess it says I tell the truth, that’s what.


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Everything I say here on Book to the Future is, of course, my own opinion. But I really wouldn’t recommend Portrait. I would have given it my lowest rating, except the middle bit is so brilliantly written. Joyce is such a gifted writer, but he spends so much time faffing around, trying to be oh-so-clever. It annoyed me. You’re not missing anything if you don’t read this book.

Read D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers instead. It covers similar territory (growing up poor; the life of the author turned into fiction) but it’s infinitely better. Trust me.

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

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