James Joyce, Portrait of the artist as a young
man. I finished this yesterday, and I'm still not sure
what exactly to make of it. Superficially, it's the story of a
boy, Stephen Dedalus, growing up in Ireland around the turn of
the 20th century, going to school, and then onto university.
It's apparently very much an autobiography, and there are a
number of clues within the text that suggest this is the case.
Stylistically, it's quite a mixed bag. Some of it is stream of
consciousness, it finishes with a small section written like a
journal or diary, and it also includes two long disquisitions,
nominally natural speech, on the nature of hell and beauty.
The story is initially quite vivid, laced with the smells and
slang of life at a boys' boarding school. Things gradually
become more sterile (typified by the two miniature essays
mentioned above), and it becomes that much harder to gain a
sense of the Stephen's motivations. He has one evocatively
described epiphany on a windy sea-shore that tells him that his
role in life is to become an artist (this is after the first
essay), but is subsequently rather a cipher. He holds forth on
the nature of beauty, thinks typically disparaging, but
occasionally admiring, thoughts about his peers at university,
and obsesses over a woman he thinks he loves (and whom he has
known since childhood).
The crux of the book really seems to be the crisis that comes
upon Stephen while still at school. Perhaps because he can't
connect with his great love, or perhaps because he is just a
horny teenager, he starts visiting brothels. He is committing
the sin of fornication at the very least, and when the school
has a religious retreat over a week (prompting the first essay,
a sermon on the horrors of hell), his guilt really catches up
with him. This is the novel's most powerful section.
As a document of the period, I found it quite an eye-opener.
The control which the Catholic Church had over Ireland's
population is something I knew about abstractly, but the early
sections of the book made this ``fact'' really come alive.
However, the story after the religous retreat at the school is
relatively dull, both because nothing much happens, and also
because we seem to have a so much more incoherent picture of
Stephen's inner thoughts. I wondered if Joyce meant us to
compare the sterility of the religious dogma that Stephen
consumed at school, to what seemed to me to be the equally
sterile stuff Stephen spouted at university.
The autobiographical nature of the novel is apparent in the way
that there are far too many characters. Joyce may well have had
vivid pictures in his head of real people behind Cranly, Davin,
Dixon, Temple and Lynch, but there's barely enough material to
distinguish them all in the novel. Another weakness, I felt,
was the odd ending, with Stephen resolved to leave the country.
Truth is stranger than fiction of course, and this is what Joyce
did too, but it seems a motive-less act in the book.
To finish positively, I think the novel's great strength is the
way in which it does seem true to life. The students'
conversations, life at school, the physical surrounds in Dublin;
everything seems quite real.
I've just discovered this website
about Joyce and his works; I'll be able to check up on Portrait
of the artist, and see what I should have thought.