On Joyce’s Portait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManOne of the things about blogging what I read is sometimes I’ll come across a book it’s hard to write about. Not because the book’s boring, but because it’s hard to come up with anything original or interesting about it. Some works have been analyzed to death. And sometimes, I’ll go into those books nearly blind. This is one of those times.

I should start off by admitting I’m not anything close to a Joyce scholar. I’ve never read Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake or any of his poetry. I’ve never read Ellman’s biography or any criticism about his writing, which is dense, multilayered and, supposedly, based on his life. It’s probably fair to say I didn’t get everything out of this I should’ve. It’s a heavy read, packed with allusion and quotation, ideas and theories. It seemed like there was a dozen footnotes a page and I wasn’t even reading a critical edition. But I still enjoyed it a bunch, although it didn’t blow me away like Dubliners did.

Portrait follows Stephen Daedalus as he grows from a child to a brash young man. He goes from a quiet observer to an active participant and from a devoted churchgoing kid to a arrogant young atheist (I certainly know the type). Just thinking about it in the abstract is impressive: Joyce caught the experience of growing up and becoming your own person, forming your own half-baked ideas on how you’re going to succeed. This makes sense: as I understand it, Daedalus represents Joyce, but through a prism of irony and exaggeration. Which is probably the right way to do it. When Daedalus goes off with a half-cocked theory about how to produce art, it’s equal parts manifesto and a young adult spouting off about stuff he doesn’t really understand. I know I’ve done that when I was younger. And my friends acted a lot like Cranly, too.

His Dublin is equally impressive. It again works on a few levels. He’s captured the city, dropping names and locales, and gives a clear enough image you could draw a rough map. But he’s also caught it as seen to Stephen through nicknames and imagery. When Daedalus describes his walk to school, Joyce makes a stroll past a madhouse and garbage seem like a walk in the park. It’s impressive stuff, but nothing quite like Joyce would do later: Vladimir Nabokov, when he was teaching literature at Cornell, was able to draw a map of Dublin from Ulysses and used that as a key part of his lectures on the novel. Try that with, say, The Wapshot Chronicle.

Not quite as impressive now, but certainly important, is Joyce’s wild shots at Ireland and what he disapproves of: cheap sentimentality, pompous blowhards. He never goes much harsher than to call the Irish “A race of clodhoppers,” but the feeling is always there, especially in the latter stages of the novel, when Daedalus lays out his artistic theories. And the lengthy sermon by Father Arnall is impressive, it certainly rings as an fire-and-brimstone kind of sermon.

I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is packed with notes (some helpful, others not to much) and has a long introduction by Seamus Deane. In a little over 40 pages, he breaks down a lot of the book’s style, history and symbolism. It’s interesting stuff, but I only found it helpful after I’d finished the book: Deane makes assumptions that you’re not only familiar with the story, but that you’re willing to look deeply into tenses and phrasing of Joyce’s prose. It can be dulling if you’re not overly familiar with the book; if you’ve never read it before, it’s not going to be of much interest, sadly. Personally, I would’ve preferred more about the book itself: the process of Joyce’s writing, it’s publication history and more on how it relates to his other novels. So it goes.

Rating: 7/10. It’s hard to assign a number to this for a couple of reasons.  I recognize that it’s a Great Novel, important in Joyce’s oeuvre and the literary history of Ireland. But, honestly, it can be a lot of work to get through the book: as slim as it looks – it’s a shade under 400 pages – it took me a couple weeks to get through and I didn’t pick it apart like I do some other books.  Like I said above: I’m sure a lot of it went over my head. Still, I enjoyed what Joyce has to say about growing up and becoming your own person (with your own private demons) and his devastating shots at Ireland still hold some historical interest, although they pre-suppose a knowledge of Irish history. Recommended (but you knew that), especially in an edition with some footnotes. I know my next attempt will be with something like this.


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