Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
I've always been a little scared of James Joyce, not least because he used to come around to our house every third Friday of the month and demand money with menaces back when I were a lad; although admittedly that may not have been James Joyce - I was very young at the time and my memory is hazy. Also, he famously wrote books making use of long made-up words. Anyway, my point here is that, being entirely unfamiliar with the man's oeuvre, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man seemed as good a place to start as any, given that it was his first and is as such supposedly not quite so weirdly impenetrable as his later page-turners.

Joyce famously wrote his narratives as a stream of consciousness, swerving from random thought to subject to event and back often without warning - the prospect of which is probably what kept my curiosity at bay as I imagined something like an Irish William Burroughs but more extreme and with none of the endearing toilet humour. Thankfully I was entirely wrong, and it hasn't required quite so much homework on my part as anticipated to appreciate what Joyce was doing. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is roughly autobiographical, with the specific focus being its principal character developing a sense of aesthetics; and it's probably entirely pertinent that this was written during those decades when European artists - or at least the painters - were most noisily engaged in the development and declaration of new ways of seeing by which to replace those of the classical tradition. Joyce seems less conspicuously modernist than Hemingway in this respect - Hemingway being Joyce's drinking buddy and my other recent point of reference here - but his narrative seems to share some common ground with the swirling subjective imagery of the Symbolists and other decadent types, albeit pared down to the microcosmic world of Stephen Dedalus.

Joyce, it turns out, was keen on rhythm, less in terms of there being a young lady from Ealing, and more so in the same sense as certain modernist painters of his day, persons such as Max Weber or Umberto Boccioni - thinking specifically of the States of Mind series here. I should probably stress that this is something I've noticed rather than necessarily indicative of anything directly or specifically relating to the author or his influences. Maybe it would be easier to simply give an example, such as the swell of the ocean as suggested by the repetition of the word waves in the following paragraph:

How pale the light was at the window! But that was nice. The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell.

Rhythms shape the overall structure of the novel as well as the detail, informing the relationship of the five chapters, each representing a distinct age in the development of Dedalus, and almost certainly echoing some theological form of which I am unfamiliar through having little background in that area. That said, the structure reminded me somewhat of the five directions, the five points of the Mexican Nahua world through which one must cycle in order to achieve completion; and so it feels like Joyce may have been doing something similar here, assembling five formative pieces in order to achieve a whole in acknowledgement of some specific pattern.

This development of themes is seen in Stephen the child losing his glasses early on in the novel, for which he is punished over and above simply being unable to see; reflected by his development of aesthetics in the final chapter as he is reborn by some definition, although reborn not necessarily of the vaguely traditional fire, fire having been earlier defined as having two forms - that which God made for the service of humanity, and that more fierce variant which torments the sinners in hell. Stephen appears, at least to me, to take his own path, embracing science whilst refuting the priesthood without any flags unnecessarily nailed to the masts of any ship which might sail too far in any direction other than his own, that of the great craftsman and artist as signified by the name.

Stylistically, Joyce's innovation - so far as I am able to tell - was in banishing all but the purely subjective voice of the world as experienced by his character, placing the reader at the centre of the novel in an entirely new way, but without any of the usual compromises which reduce narrative to sequential melodrama. So we are expected to make some effort to join the dots and to keep up, which can't really be done without superimposing our own subjective experiences onto those of Stephen Dedalus. Returning to possibly spurious comparisons with early twentieth century painters, the steady internal rhythm of this dialogue, coupled with Joyce's refusal to render speech as separate from the narrative, presents a sort of written equivalent of the bold surface of the work of certain Fauvists such as André Derain, no area of the image taking precedent over another, everything levelled out to an even if not necessarily uniform texture.

—A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

So, whilst a degree of contextual depth is necessary to appreciate the narrative beyond that which is set down in the novel, we supply that depth, and Joyce therefore has more common ground with his friend Hemingway than may be apparent from first glance.

The first step in the direction of beauty is to understand the frame and scope of the imagination, to comprehend the act itself of aesthetic apprehension.

Hence the unrelenting subjectivity of the narrative.

Pretentious as this all may seem, not least because there's a strong chance I've been firing blanks and in the wrong direction all along, it should at least communicate that there's a lot going on here for those who wish to work at it, and so, as the above probably indicates, I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, I take away from this novel that whilst Joyce's written style may seem an initially daunting prospect, there's really nothing to be afraid of, and this specific portrait makes for rich and particularly rewarding reading.


  1. You'll love _Ulysses_ if you can get into it. Read it with one of those guidebooks which explains what is (objectively) going on. Parts of it are frickin' hilarious, especially the part which merges Polyphemos the Cyclops with the "one-eyed" Irish nationalist Michael Cusack.

  2. Seconded re Ulysses and especially the Cyclops episode. I also agree that Ulysses is best read with a guide, none of the purist nonsense I stuck to the first time I read it, and was mystified but too cool (or aspiring to be) to admit that. There is plenty of toilet humour in Ulysses, by the way. When I was about 14 I asked one of my English teachers what JJ's books were like and he said, "Well, you know in most books people never go to the toilet?" "Gosh - yes," I said. I'd never realised that before: in books people did murder and ate food, had sex, made phone calls, but indeed you never read about them going to the toilet. "Well," my teacher continued, "in Joyce's books, they do."

    I read Dubliners first, and Portrait next. I loved Dubliners from the off, so was massively disappointed in Portrait, found it comprehensible but dull. I think you have nailed the essence of it in your review, as ever, Lawrence. It had made me curious, but I'm at the age at which I've realised I probably won't be able to read all the books I want to before I die, so I'll not revisit it.

    Do read Ulysses, I say, and Dubliners. If you read nothing else in Dubliners, read the story Araby, which is one of my fave short stories ever. You can probably find it on Kindle for a penny or so. Finnegans Wake also has some readable, musical parts, but I can't recommend it as a good read at all - even with a guide it's pretty out there.

  3. I too would advise you to read Ulysses but you don't need a guide to get through it. Why would you want somebody holding your hand, interpreting what everything means for you? The only advice I'd give is that you should read it only if you actually want to read it, not through thinking that you should read it like you've some kind of duty to.
    Take your time and enjoy the ride because potentially Ulysses can be life enhancing.

    1. I certainly will at some point. It was actually my first choice but given some of its reputation I elected to start with something that might be hypothetically gentler, namely Portrait.

    2. I should let you know, really, that your blog was an influence on me to start writing one myself. The fact that you knew Andy Martin - and I think it was you who wrote about Gogs when he died - also made me sit up and take notice of what you were doing here with your blog. I thought it was a very good thing. Valid, even. I was seeing sci-fi book covers reproduced on tumblr sites but no-one was actually reviewing them. As one way of putting it, there was a gap in the market, which you seemed to be filling. So I've started my own blog now and you've been an influence. One of my very first reviews being, in fact, Ulysses by Joyce. theartofexmouth.blogspot.co.uk
      So thank you, Mr Burton. And keep at it.