Saturday, January 2, 2010

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

NB: This review contains spoilers.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManMy rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this on an impulse; "impulse" has become a magical word for me. This mysterious force is what lead me back to Shakespeare and later introduced me to James Joyce; now here I am, finished with Portrait, working my way through Dubliners, and occasionally glancing warily over at those other two Joyce novels. I'm convinced: Impulse is a type of magic for the man who doesn't believe in magic.

There is something magical about this book, too. At least the combination of impressive passages that I could understand, and the sections that seemed just out of my grasp, together form something that I perceive as magic. Joyce created a brew of imagery and collage-like features that I can sometimes admire, sometimes only gawk at in awe and stupefied wonder.

Several words, no doubt, have been thrown about to describe this and other Joyce works: "fragmentary," "mosaic," etc. -- I prefer the word "collage." He has a style that loves to weave together seemingly unconnected scenes and paint gorgeous pictures. I was always amazed to see a thread of imagery weave its way from scene to scene, seamlessly. There is much art in blending images into a complete collage, one that has many, varied elements that somehow combine to form a continuity over the entire work.

Portrait is a "coming of age" story: it starts with a boy, naturally secretive and rich in imagination, and, through the steady processes of a good education, Catholic guilt, and Irish nationalism, gradually leads to a man. That man is either James Joyce or his literary alter-ego, "Stephen Dedalus." I have no idea where the boundary line sits, though I tended to think of the man/boy in the book as Joyce -- I received a jolt, on at least two occasions, when I suddenly found the name "Stephen" on the page.

It was fun to watch the steady progress of the boy into the man, the dabbler into the artist -- and to also watch the style morph and grow. Across the book's five parts, the reader sees the superficially Victorian beginnings transform gradually into the "real," full-grown Joyce-ing of Part V.

The beginning reminded me, at least superficially, of Jane Eyre: middle class child fallen on difficult financial times, boarding school, a childhood friend catches a disease and slowly fades away. I felt his childish fear and exhilaration when he made the trip to the rector's office; his imaginative twisting of The Count of Monte Cristo; and his excitement and confusion while sitting at dinner with the adults in his family, an onlooker to political debate.

The sense of Part II was more difficult for me to discern. Though the word "Admit." certainly has a chillier feel to it now -- uttered as it is by a schoolmate who harasses Stephen, a scene made even more chilling through the playful demeanor of the offending boy. Then there is the depressing, demeaning, even entropic, visit to Cork. His father tries to remember the good 'ol days as the rug slips out from under him. And then there is Emma, his "beloved" whom he never gets to know -- only a symbol of pure womanhood on a far off pedestal.

In the middle, my interest began to sag. Religion dominates: with the never-ending sermon, the "wicked" acts of Stephen, and the subsequent repentance. It certainly was not my favorite section, though I did like the description of sin as a "torpid snaky life feeding itself out of the tender marrow of his life and fattening upon the slime of lust" -- among other dire, Catholic images. And, despite his seeming happiness while living the "good life" of complete devotion after repentance I couldn't help but think how awful it must be to be Catholic.

Things pick up again when he is asked to join the Church, but declines. We get a small peek into the family cottage, and the full extent of his nuclear family. His relatives are simply "sister" or "mother" -- the distant between the main character and his world, not just his family, is always evident. At least twice he refers to the outside world as just so much noise, often an inconvenience. The book is remarkably self-centered, reflecting the title, as well as the author's natural introversion.

The last section of Part IV, in my mind, is the pivotal and best scene, in which he walks along the beach, ready to head to University, becoming a man before our eyes. The last line of the scene, for some reason, has stuck with me: "and the tide was flowing in fast to the land with low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools." I'll let anyone reading this experience it, in whole, for themselves.

Then there is Part V, the shining gem and achievement -- the full man. We are bombarded with learned talks of esthetics and politics and theology, with loads of Latin (oddly, without translation in my edition), and many literary allusions. I began to strongly sense the tension between the three languages: English, in which Joyce will always feel a foreigner; Irish, newly revived among the upper class due to a surge of nationalism, though Joyce avoids it; and Latin, still the trusty and ancient language of the educated.

I don't quite perfectly recall or understand the ending. I'll get back to ya...

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1 comment:

  1. Great discussion of a fascinating book Abe! It's rare to find blog posts about this one, so it's been a pleasure to read your thoughts.

    Like you, I'm aware of the big Joyce novels edging ever closer, demanding to be read. I really enjoyed Portrait and found it so much more accessibly than I had imagined.

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