Herzog by Saul Bellow – Review

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“For Christ’s sake don’t cry, you idiot! Live or die, but don’t poison everything.”

Writing negative reviews is difficult for me. I used to wonder why, since many of the most purely entertaining reviews I’d read bordered on mean-spirited. They used sarcasm to cut through bloated novels and reveal the weakness in prose, storytelling and character development underneath the pomp.

The more I read, though, and the more I go back and consider the novels I’ve enjoyed after smart, convincing differing opinions which don’t sway one iota of my love for books others hate, I become less and less convinced of any universally ‘good’ novel. There are only ones which let me feel something that is (I know, barf) true, powerful, affecting.

I have picked up books with stunning prose, well-thought out characters, and exciting dialogue, which for whatever reason never connected with me. Herzog by Saul Bellow is one of these. It’s an honest, erudite, and beautifully written journey with a character I loathe travelling with — and this doesn’t feel by design, like with novels about genuine misanthropics like Notes from Underground.

Herzog explores New York of the 1950s a very particular mind-set: a frustrated, Jewish, middle-class and divorced professor. It feels as though every page of Herzog is stuffed with obscure allusions, metaphysics, ornate descriptions, and even more obscure history. These are stereotypically considered some elements of an “important” book: it wants to encompass a whole world in its pages, its extremely erudite, and it expects you to keep up and not complain. Something in the mixture ruined Herzog’s flavour, however.

I felt pity for Moses Herzog, but not appreciation, because I thought the way he looked at the world — and the way I couldn’t help but feel the novel itself endorsed, through its romanticization of this confused, pathetic man. The revelations and story here certainly feels authentic as a character, but this novel has made me realise that I don’t think authenticity is necessarily a virtue in a writer. For example, Lovecraft was being “authentic” in his portrayal of other races with regard to his own prejudices. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise those prejudices while still appreciating other aspects of his work.

There were things I liked about the novel, the prose particularly, but some of the views being espoused weren’t just outdated (I read Roth recently and thought he found the humour in his generation’s attitudes to gender) — they were spiteful.

Herzog feels like a satire on misogyny written by someone who didn’t understand his own joke. The presentation of Madeleine (who, had she been a man, would have been twirling her moustache), clearly based on Bellow’s actual ex-wife, is simply bitter to read about in an uncomfortable and uncompelling way. It was like having a stranger on the bus rant about what a monster his ex wife is. Romana, Herzog’s new girlfriend, was kind, but her need to please seemed to come from a place of supplication, as almost an apology for her promiscuity earlier in her life — there was one paragraph where Herzog made that point explicitly. Every female character feels like they have been solely defined by the world around them, and so lack the interesting interior lives afforded to the men.

Bellow once mused that “if you opened up a modern mind with a saw things would tumble out in every direction. You pitch yourself headlong into mental chaos and make your own way from there.” This book is mental chaos, but not in the fascinating, LSD-infused chaos of Pynchon; it’s bitterness and learning in equal measure spurted into the face of the world. But there’s real art here, insightful or funny lines that ultimately failed to move me because of the slog of a novel they were surrounded by:

“He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life.”

This book was simply so far from my tastes that, despite the strengths of the prose, picking up towards the end filled me with actual dread. It’s strange, though, because even while reading and not enjoying the book at all, I could understand why others might love it. The only novel I’ve had a similar experience with was The Corrections, which was at least self aware about how melodramatic and bombastic it could be. Oh well.

Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

~

If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

~

Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

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Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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“I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror.”

The Turn of the Screw tells a ghost story set in a haunted house. Good. Our protagonist is a woman who has been given charge of two unsettlingly perfect children, and she may or may not be going mad. Great!

So what happened? How did Henry James create the literary equivalent of Nyquil out of such an exciting premise?

There is, buried deep, a chilling story here, with plot-twists, difficult choices, and keen lines which express the constantly frayed emotions of our dismayed protagonist. This would be easier to review if nothing had happened plot-wise, because then the utter boredom a book as fast-paced and psychologically insightful as this would have had a stylistic point that could be blamed.

The problem is that sentences wind and curl around what they’re trying to say until you’re too distracted to care anymore. After ten pages, you’re confused; after fifteen, you’re irritated; after twenty, you’re asleep.

James keeps you guessing as to whether the threat is coming from the supernatural or the narrator’s own mind, and you can reverse-engineer the popularization of a number of modern horror tropes to this novel. But maybe its success is why it’s such a slog to finish now, despite the tiny length. If so many modern stories hadn’t plundered the best elements, there might be more to distract from the writing itself; instead, this book becomes yet another example of Seinfeld is Unfunny.  

It’s not simply a product of its time, though. There are authors just as verbose who have managed sophisticated, layered writing without accidentally creating a cure for insomnia. For example, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Eliot are all enhanced by their layered and elevated prose, not smothered in it. As it is, The Turn of the Screw’s fascinating premise was crushed under the weight of James’ waffling.

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”

The Bone Clocks is a decade-spanning fantasy novel about the lies and justifications that result in evil. It has psychics, dimension hopping, and immortal soul-suckers, but everything turns back to the question of why people hurt each other.

Age and its numerous horrors haunt a large cast of characters, and constant time-jumps means their rapid declines become a worry for the reader too. Years fall away like leaves from a dying tree until, before you know it, the people Mitchell is making you care about are rotting in the ground. This gives the previously mentioned immortal soul-suckers some nice thematic resonance.

The characters are, as should be expected with Mitchell, the sturdiest part of this novel’s foundations aside from the handsome prose. Mitchell can make someone flawed but empathetic, and in this the case, the nastier they are the more fun they seem to be to read. More than once I thought, “How have I grown to love this character? They’re a bastard.” They’re rarely unrepentant bastards, though. Combine this internal intrigue with Mitchell’s sharp sense of humour and it’s easy to stay interested.

Your expectations for each section are adjusted as the stories go on. For example, a war reporter was the narrator in one of strongest parts of the novel, but not because of firefights or battle scenes. His struggles back in rural England were about parenthood, and addressed the fear of losing a child in a way that was visceral. I felt my stomach tense over and over again, and this all informed the rest of the novel (which explores a number of strained parental relationships) in interesting ways.

There’s a seriousness about the fantasy narrative that make moments comic relief welcome. The rude, self-obsessed author was an on-the-nose parody of Martin Amis (Mitchell has denied this… but I don’t believe him), and his desperation and self-pity reminded me of Timothy Cavendish’s farcical appearance in Cloud Atlas; the former’s story was more poignant than the latter, though, due to the sad transformation we watched Hershey go through as he aged.

There’s not a lack of personality on display here, then. The problems come back to the plot and pacing.

The structure is less controlled than in Mitchell’s other works. Only the fifth section delves into this War, which is more disconnected from everyday life than the rest of the novel (even the sixth part’s dystopian future), although Mitchell wisely keeps the stakes in this supernatural conflict low scale, at least relative to most fantasy. There are, fortunately, no feeble references to magical macguffins which might destroy the world: a Capital-W-War is ongoing over the right of a small group of powerful people to prey on the weak for sustenance, and this ties back to the way death looms above human lives. It’s interesting, but rushed. The descriptions are less grounded. Instead of just pushing people away with their minds, or something equally simple (if hokey), “[Horologists] pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it [their] assailants”. It feels as though you’ve been blasted into a parody of the earlier, far more restrained musings on the supernatural.

I’m all for ambitious fantasy, but there has to be a balance which The Bone Clocks never manages. The quotidian and the supernatural are firmly kept apart until the later sections, where they merge unsatisfactorily. This is particularly frustrating as Mitchell excelled at combining the genres in other novels. Still, I don’t think a writer who melded the supernatural and mundane as well as the writer of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet would make a change so obviously jarring without specific intentions in mind. The over-the-top elements could even be read as a challenge to “traditional literature” readers who might normally dismiss a novel solely because of its genre. Mitchell would have known all of these elements would alienate people, even if he was hoping they would meld more smoothly than they did.

When it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work, but for the majority of its pages I was enthralled. It’s flawed, but not much more so than Ghostwritten—Mitchell’s first novel, often cited as his second-best—as that novel had a jarring sci-fi element, which paralleled my problems with this book. This is a roundabout way of saying I’d rather dive into a very flawed but ambitious novel by Mitchell than a more consistent work by 90% of the living authors I’ve read.

The Plague by Albert Camus

  

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

Oran is a dreary port city where boredom disguises itself as contentment. Inhabitants go about their lives as though in a daze; not uncomfortable, not joyous. This is a place of greys.

And then the plague comes. All gates are shut, and the town is sealed. No one will be leaving for a very long time. Uncountable rat corpses are coverings streets and doorsteps, men and women are coughing up blood, and thousands are dying. We follow Rieux, a doctor trying to do what he can to help, as lives are changed and the question of whether or not you have lived well becomes a much more immediate concern.As you can, this isn’t an always a cheerful read. It is engaging, though, despite being almost a polemic (or, to be more blunt, preachy), but as this is Camus that’s rather like complaining water is wet. The dialogue felt stilted and forced at times, though, but how much of that can be blamed on the translation from French I couldn’t say. The characters are well-drawn, with some fascinating motivations and painful backgrounds. I was actually surprised at how personal this often feels considering the heady subject matter, as individual worries are again and again at the centre of concern rather than society wide sweeping change.

All stories come together to give readers a message that sounds extremely trite summarised. Big truths often do, though. Camus makes us understand that only individual sacrifice can stop the plague (which, as might be obvious, is very much a metaphor), to stop pain from spreading if you possibly can. Heroism isn’t something that should be glorified to Camus, it’s merely what must be done. Ordinary people have no choice but to become exceptional, or their friends and family will go through gruesome ends. In fact, friends and family might die either way. But, even if defeat’s inevitable, we should still try to be good.

This isn’t what I could exactly call an exciting read in the way The Stranger was, something which I raced through and made me question the way I looked at the world. It’s less direct than that, and as such maybe less impactful. All I can say is that three-hundred pages of misery somehow made me feel uplifted, and that’s an accomplishment.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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“…she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see…”

Some novels give you interesting ideas to think about. Some create an entertaining stories. Some do an interesting mixture of both of these things. A rare kind of book, however, can transport you into a time, place, and body that are far away from anything you would normally experience, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtston achieves this with ease and grace.

Hurston creates the humid, vibrant landscapes of South Florida through a dramatic third-person prose style that borders on mythical, but it’s dialogue – phonetic, funny, and raw – that lets her truly shine. Crafting insightful, funny conversations that still propel narrative almost looks easy when she does it. Almost.

The characters are flawed, even the most lovable: the protagonist can seem self-centered;  Tea-Cake is affectionate and funny, but his temper and gambling can make him almost dangerous; her other love interests are cruel, but understandable. That’s why it’s possible to really believe and care about them (“loving” characters can be a trite phrase used to describe mere affection, but in this case it’s appropriate), and one of the reasons why I almost didn’t want the book to end.

I was turned onto this book by an essay by Zadie Smith, who once again is scarily perceptive. Her thoughts as to why the love of Tea-Cake and Janie rings so true despite the deluge of poor romance in a lot of otherwise strong fiction, for example:

“[T]he choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame[.]”

Put simply, what makes this novel truly special is that Hurtston’s characters feel as organic in the way they interact and clash. This is a love story with conflict and heartbreak, but completely devoid of cliche and over-sentimentality. That’s something rare and fantastic.

V2 | Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (with too many mentions of The Secret History)

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It happened in New York, April 10th, nineteen years ago. Even my hand balks at the date. I had to push to write it down, just to keep the pen moving on the paper. It used to be a perfectly ordinary day, but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.”

Note: I accidentally overrode a version of this after posting. Thankfully, WordPress saved the post. Oopsie.

As always, I’m years late in reading a “trendy” book. When The Goldfinch came out in 2013, the hype was (in the tiny world of book-publishing) enormous. Untrendy confession: with an author I’d never read before, and didn’t know if I was likely to enjoy, it just looked too long for me to bother. I don’t mind chunky novels, but they’re an investment: hours upon days upon weeks of time. I want to have some assurance that it will, quite plainly, be worth it.

The Secret History, which I picked up having heard great things, had me in a pleasant vice grip. The characters were both admirable and despicable, and you were drawn into their lives with a sense of fascination which mirrored the protagonists’. It had a clear-sighted view of class, addiction, and thoughtless cruelty with a strong, ornate style of writing, which made the earnestness of the protagonist’s refreshing. It had an obsession with Ancient Greek and Roman myths and writings which mirrored my own (harbored since around age six). It had a carefully built sense of place: the university felt inviting due, but cold. It was really, really good.

With so many of my own favourite topics covered, along with some beautiful, ornate writing, The Secret History unsurprisingly became one of my favourite novels. Tartt had earned my trust. So into The Goldfinch I dove…

There’s an explosion, a theft, and a panic stricken young man, living with horrendous guilt and anxiety, named Theodore Decker. 

There’s a breathless pace (despite numerous plot diversions) which makes The Goldfinch hard to stop reading. Character twists, a great eye for strange details, and a smart sense for just the moment a reader might start to mean that the common abstract sections examining art and the meaning of beauty don’t leave the plot in a quagmire which the novel would struggle to escape from. These are all great qualities, which was frustrating while writing this review as it made it harder to pinpoint why I still got far less out of this The Secret History.

Maybe it’s unfair to make direct comparisons to another novel; maybe The Goldfinch should be evaluated on its own merits. I’m not sure. All I am certain of is that, possibly due to the artifice and coincidences that everything hinges on in The Goldfinch, many sections feel artificial. I didn’t notice at the time but looking back it’s glaring. Everything hinges on coincidences, which may be why many call this novel Dickensian, but you end up feeling almost pulled along from section to section. Reading it was like going on an exceptionally well-made rollercoaster rather than taking a wander through unknown woods, which was the case with The Secret History. It’s as though—if she doesn’t explicitly state themes, or direct your attention carefully during ambiguous interactions—Tartt is fatally afraid you’ll miss something. Half the fun of a novel comes from what you find beneath their surface. By making things so direct, Tartt weakens the ability of the reader to become truly immersed.

While our protagonist is a subdued introvert, side characters are over the top and extremely endearing. Boris, a wild young Russian, is extremely likeable but dangerous, and when Theo becomes friends with him you can tell this will mean trouble. Tartt captures the dynamic of intense young male friendships shockingly well: the bonding over mischief and danger, the in-jokes, the secret languages, the itch to do something that could end incredibly badly just because you can. Hobie is a charming, fuzzy headed furniture dealer who comes across in his benevolence almost Father Christmasesque—still, he has his complications and blind spots. There’s also a love interest named Pippa who unfortunately never feels quite as fleshed out as those around her; her role is by design to be mysterious, but I never got a sense of revelation about who she was even when I got the sense I was supposed to.

The Secret History’s cast were emotionally stunted narcissists, but you would want to spend actual time with people from The Goldfinch. That’s part of why I wish I loved this book instead of just like it: I want to be compelled to come back and live with the characters again. If The Secret History was cold, with an emotionally reserved cast of characters and an obsession with the past—not to mention heaps of actual snow—the Goldfinch is warm.  It’s the warmth of a house with a fire going after you’ve come in from rain. If that sounds annoyingly abstract, I understand, but trying to convey the mood of a novel almost 900 pages long and taking place over such a long period is necessarily vague. Theo lives in a world with people and places he defines by whether or not they instill a sense of comfort in him. He’s searching for a place that lets him feel like he belongs, continuingly going back to a kindly old Hobie. 

I probably sound like I don’t like the book, but I do. A lot. There are some beautiful reflections about art and the way it can impact your world, for example:

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

Maybe I got the secret whisper from The Secret History and not The Goldfinch because it appealed to my personal interests more, or maybe because I value ambiguity more than straight-headed storytelling. Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think The Goldfinch is a very strong, well-paced novel with a great atmosphere, but it’s so on-the-nose with its themes that it become difficult to connect with on a truly personal level, which is a shame. It yells instead of whispering.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

  
This feels like a very timely novel, despite that it was written over sixty years ago.

A world-weary reporter works in Indochina, waiting to die. His time writing for The Times in this warzone is essentially an inefficient method of suicide, and he lives with a young local woman whom he knows he will likely abandon eventually. He loves his new country but hates the world it occupies. In enters a quiet American, Pyle, a naive young man with big ideas about democratising the country with a third force, who could rise up and end the conflict.

The key theme here is the danger of good intentions and innocence. This a country ravaged by war, and so any decision made quickly and easily will likely result in innocent deaths. Greene is cynical about human nature but warm regarding individuals, refusing to demonise his characters, even those with ideas he clearly finds reprehensible. At its heart this is an anti-conflict novel without the simplification that these often entail. Greene is still unafraid to be direct, though, through the main character’s simple recurring thought: “I hate war.”

As the foreword points out, there is a fascination with morality and unintended consequences here, as “there is no real way to be good in Greene, there are simply a million ways to be more or less bad.” Colonialism and a specific breed of Western arrogance in regards to far-flung conflicts of many different stripes are examined as the story rolls on. In a moment that feels appropriate to our current moment of history, the idea of military intervention in countries we don’t truly understand is taken to task:

“We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren’t colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back the province and we left our allies to be sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. […] We shall do the same thing here. Encourage them and leave them with a little equipment and a toy industry.”

Changing My Mind: Ocassional Essays by Zadie Smith

  

“I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.” 

“Changing My Mind” is a strange title for a book of essays. The majority of opinionated writers in the UK often appear worryingly sure of themselves. The columnists littering the pages of our newspapers are a strident bunch, desperate to demonstrate that they know what’s best for us.

Smith isn’t strident about much, despite her obvious mental gifts. This is one of the many reasons she comes across as far more intelligent than the majority of non-fiction writers who have bothered to write in the last few years (that I’ve read). She weaves her way through topics from strange angles, isn’t afraid to take readers on weird asides, and peppers her pieces with footnotes containing strange trivia. I’m certain I won’t be the first person to compare these essays to David Foster Wallace (whom is namedropped in almost half the essays here), but Smith comes across as, if anything, more erudite than him, which is intimidating but great fun to dig through.

The range of subject matter covered is wide considering how cohesive this is: race, E.M. Forster, Christmas, Kafka, the Oscars. Smith has a distinctive voice: she’s learned but friendly, challenging but inviting, sombre but hilarious in the space of a paragraph. She enthusiastically engages with whatever she decides to muse on, and references philosophers, rap artists, Madonna, traditional literary canon figures, anything that appears to pop into her mind. There are fine lines between fun and frivolous, serious and dour, knowledgeable and pretentious, but Smith knows just how to maintain engagement.

Smith’s willingness to question her own motivations and delve into her topics with endearing self-consciousness mean that, despite how often she’s uncertain, you’ll be glad to have heard what she had to say.

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.