Friday, 17 April 2015

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

Yet again, I prove that I often go about things ass-backwards. Of course the first James Joyce book I tried was Ulysses. Of course, I spent months and months getting through it, with the help of a handy guide to help me make sense of it all. Of course, I both enjoyed and felt like there were large swathes of it I was getting not at all.  And of course, I thought Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would be just as difficult. I was game, however. I girded my loins, got it out of the library, was surprised by its slimness, and sat down to read.

All that mental preparation and determination and reassuring myself that I could go through it slowly, there was no need to hurry? About a chapter in, I realized how very unnecessary that was. Why, this book was easy! (Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, though, that's taking me a while.) It didn't break my brain at all! The prose was straightforward, the story easy to follow, the school tales of Joyce's alter-ego entertaining and occasionally enlightening. What is this parallel world I have fallen into? Isn't James Joyce supposed to be riddles and long sentences and every style of writing known to man up to the point he wrote?

So...yeah. Apparently I should have started here, and then tackled Ulysses. It's interesting having read them this way around, comparing what I thought this book would be to what it was, and the sheer pleasure I took in reading it in three days.

Stephen Dedalus, born to a father on the verge of financial ruin, struggles through his early life to eventually discover himself as the titular artist. His schooldays occupy most of the pages, and Dedalus is overly conscientious and upset when others don't follow the rules they set down - particularly when those in power are arbitrary about the application of such rules. I felt a certain sympathy for this.

As he gets to puberty, he is beset by sexual desire, and loathes himself for carrying it out. This causes a whole-hearted turn to Catholicism, and a flirtation with the priesthood. It's strong, and convincing - the whole book is beautiful to read, the insight quite magnificent.

Then comes the moment that heralds his birth as an artist, where he is neither ashamed of the world, nor apart from it, but finds himself, in a moment, wholly, intensely, of it. And yet not of it, with a drive to write something that is true, with all the isolation that entails.

This book is long on incident, but short on plot. And that is just fine with me. The writing is clear and easy, and his moments of wrestling with himself, or discovering his place in the world swept me away with a beautiful intensity.

Also, it's much easier than Ulysses. But it makes me want to go back and read Ulysses again. Not for a few years - I'm in no hurry. But eventually.

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