A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
1914, 253 pp.
James Joyce is certainly the most notorious writer in English, if not the most notorious writer in any language anywhere. Probably Shakespeare is better known and more discussed, but most people have some actual exposure to Shakespeare, albeit only in school or in heavily padded adaptations. As The Guardian never tires of reminding us, Joyce is among the most-purchased but indisputably least-read authors in the world. Almost everyone has heard of him. It is practically a right of passage for all intelligent, solipsistic, arrogant, artistic-minded young men to take a crack at Ulysses and fail to get out of the Martello tower. It is a pity that the great legends of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have so thoroughly overshadowed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is an excellent and rewarding book.
Portrait consists of five chapters, moving forward through the early life of Stephen Dedalus, the sensitive poet and aesthete who also figures prominently in Ulysses. As Stephen matures and develops, so too does the book’s prose: the writing in each chapter reflects Stephen’s apprehension of the world at that time. Chapter One is therefore quite simple, with a bit of babytalk and little intellect or plot, only mood and sensation. This discouraged me the first time I picked up Portrait, many years ago. Do not let it discourage you!
Chapter Two is more complex, suffused with kindness and innocence. Here I think Joyce the Author is most clearly visible through the impeccably maintained persona of Stephen the Free-Indirect Style Narrator. Joyce shows great tenderness for the quiet, imaginative little boy who is sent off to school and who begins to experience the tensions which cut into his family. We learn about his father, witness an argument over politics at the dinner table, see what life is like at school. Chapters Three and Four are where Portrait really hits its stride. There Stephen is an adolescent, discovering Romantic poetry (indeed, when in Chapter Three Stephen gets beaten up by boys for liking Byron better than Tennyson, the reader realizes how many Byronic flourishes Joyce has layered into the chapter) and begins discovering women. Finally he discovers actual sex, and prostitutes, and the oppressive Catholicism of his upbringing seizes center stage.
Joyce treats us to two furious, frothing sermons on hellfire and eternity, easily rivaling Dante for the most persuasive depiction of the guilt and fear engendered by Christianity. The whole chapter is written in the blood-and-thunder cadences of ornate, Old Testament prose. This is prose that could beat up Cormac McCarthy's prose and take its lunch money. Stephen is racked with guilt, terrified by God and the enormity of his sins, in a pool of self hatred which would have drowned Raskolnikov. He sums it up:
“What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.”
Stephen confesses and repents and tries to become the most godly and pious person he can be. Like Saramago’s Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Joyce demonstrates here that taking Christianity seriously is the swiftest way out of religion. Stephen’s teachers expect that he will join the clergy, but his intellect rebels, tormented by the cruelty of a God which would create such a horrible place as hell, or such a horrible thing as eternity, and after a brilliant depiction of existential revolt, Stephen finally casts off the last remaining chains which kept him from apprehending his own abilities: in the final chapter, his voice is not that of a child, or of his family background, or of his favorite poets, or of the religion in which he was raised. It is finally his own voice. If this chapter had failed, the book would have failed. Luckily, it is by far the finest passage in the book. Stephen emerges as a wickedly intelligent, deeply read, endlessly sensitive and observant person. There is a splendid passage of reflection on all the things that he has learned in college: "but yet it wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world's culture and that the monkish learning, in terms of which he was striving to forge out an aesthetic philosophy, was held no higher by the age he lived in than the subtle and curious jargons of heraldry and falconry.” He won me over right there: I wanted to be friends with him, and I look forward to seeing him again in Ulysses.
In a review for the New Republic, H.G. Wells called Portrait “by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing.” I would go further: it is the most convincing picture of an intellectual and artistic development, of the stages by which a mind frees itself from tradition and superstition, and of the process of a keen and sensitive intellect finding its own particular voice. Here the unity of content and form is complete: by the final chapter, when Stephen comes into his own, Joyce is writing at the top of his form, in the voice that would later animate the entire world in Ulysses. Portrait is therefore a useful door into that giant masterpiece: it gets the reader over his preliminary terrors, provides some acquaintance with Joyce’s quirks and methods, and introduces the reader to a splendid character and Joyce as the author. And best of all, Portrait is simply a good book. It requires no interpretive machinery or “expert” commentariat. It can be picked up and read with profit and enjoyment by anyone. Afterwards, Ulysses begins to seem a vaguely possible undertaking.
Some writers are highly visual, particularly since the advent of film brought on an artistic grammar dictated by the necessities of visual storytelling and embedded it in our cultural unconscious. Others are auditory, with a great ear for dialogue and dialects, for the peculiar rhythm of actual speech. Joyce is an omni-sensual writer. He does not mention a sensation as a visual cue, but as an actual tactile experience, bounded by his character’s consciousness and perception. Portrait is packed with sounds and textures and smells and tastes, the memories they bring on, the emotions they provoke, and the digressions of thought which follow from their experience. This makes for slightly curious reading to a literary sensibility which is trained to picture a character and his environment in the mind’s eye. We are almost always conscious of what Stephen is experiencing, though not always where and when he is experiencing it, or what he looks like while doing so.
There is a lengthy section in which Stephen explains to a friend his elaborate Aquinas-inspired theory of aesthetics. He reaches, after many closely-argued pages, this conclusion: “To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand--that is art.” His full conception of art and beauty finally allows him a way to understand and appreciate the world, and the book ends with him self-confident, adult, and able to face the world. Joyce writes towards the end: “A soft liquid joy like the noise of many waters flowed over his memory and he felt in his heart the soft peace of silent spaces of fading tenuous sky above the waters, of oceanic silence, of swallows flying through the seadusk over the flowing waters.”
Knowing that Ulysses begins with Stephen some years later and deals (along with everything else it deals with, which may be the sum of human experience) with his relationship with Leopold Bloom, I was very tempted upon finishing Portrait to scrap my elaborate plan to prepare for reading Ulysses and simply jump straight in. It was difficult not to read the last page of Portrait, and with the closing of one cover open another and read the first page of Ulysses. Take this as a testament to how much I liked the book, how much I liked Joyce as an author and Stephen as a character. The idea of a further thousand very difficult pages spent in his company seemed to me a pleasure rather than a burden, and I eagerly look forward to beginning the endeavor.