A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

Starting an Important Book is a constricting moment. The weight of expectation fits snuggly, but I’m never sure if it’s expectation for the book or myself. I’m aware, after all, that if I don’t connect with one of the big hitters of the Western canon that the fault could lie with my own middling knowledge about (in this case) Irish politics, or a phrase’s literary context (could including an allusion to sex really have resulted in a ban? The mind boggles), or whether what now appears cliché does so because every other writer and their mum have already read and copied from this exact book time after time. As a History degree guy, so lacking any formal guidance about Literary Matters, I started browsing the internet and bugging my English degree friends about where to start with approaching Joyce. Everyone has an opinion: 

Try A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man first, since it’ll give you a good idea what to expect. / Strap your big boy pants and crack open Ulysses; there should be no half measures with this author, damnit. / Try Dubliners so you’ll get a feel for the city and how many strange moods this man can make you occupy. (No one suggested Finnegan’s Wake, and the only Irish person I asked scoffed and said “not to bother with the boring bastard.”)

I went with the simplest option, Dubliners, and by the end I thought I got it. By “it”, I mean why most people respect or love Joyce. By the end of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, though, I realised I hadn’t even cracked the surface. This man has multitudes.

His style is changing constantly. While Dubliners was consistently sober in tone (if not content…), with ornate descriptions overlaying sparse, slice-of-life situations, social classes, and attitudes, Portrait is diverse and joyous. The protagonist lives at an emotional fever pitch, at the edge of having his brain boil over from the intensity:

“Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind.”  

“His eyes were dimmed with tears, and, looking humbly up to heaven, he wept for the innocence he had lost.” 

You get the idea. In the hands of a lesser writer this would come across as melodrama, but there’s a wry, ironic tone to the writing that makes our narrator, Stephen Douglas, come across as naive rather than insufferable. 

There’s a swarm of references to Irish politics and Catholic dogma that should be off putting, but most can be picked up from context and the rest never distracted me from the story. Even if I didn’t understand the exact situations being argued over, I understood the characters and so still maintained emotional investment. I’m surprised at how much this wasn’t an issue.

On the writing side, Joyce can make words sing. I mean it: there’s a showy, ecstatic tone that is more reminiscent of music than typical prose. In fact, ecstatic is a good word for this book. Even when the subject matter is dark and the novel gets dense, the intricate language stays elevated, varied and beautiful. 

Some sections are slower and denser than others, but I was always interested in where Stephen Douglas would go in life. He’s an emotional creature, and so you feel swept up in his happiness and guilty, in his innocence and excitement. That kind of immersion is rare and should be bloody well appreciated when it’s conjured up.

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