Bus Reads 3: Thoughts on Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

joyce youngI daren’t say when I begun to read this book, or indeed when I finished it. However, I’ve got six more books to review after this one in order to catch up with where I’m at now with my reading. Hmm. The reason I’ve put this off for so long is that I’ve not really known what to say about this work. I mean, it is sublime, in my opinion. I adored it from start to finish, and find it so beautifully poetic that I took in more of the sound of the text and the feel of the words rather than any actual meaning. I probably read it in the way that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are better read, actually, considering that A Portrait of the Artist… does have a conceivable and intelligible plot.

Firstly, I think that this text works so well due to its nature as a bildungsroman based upon Joyce’s own youth, and interestingly, the actual text almost ‘comes-of-age’ along with Stephen due to the clever way in which the writing style alters almost imperceptibly throughout the story. Morrissey stated recently that when writing his Autobiography, he “…wrote the childhood sequence almost as a child might, and the adolescent period as an adolescent might, and the adult section as a ‘suicidalist’ might”, and save for the last point, this rings true for Joyce here. In the same way as a person ages imperceptibly if you see them over a long period, the text also matures and develops in a way that is not really noticeable unless you stop and take a step back. I was unable to tell when the writing begun to alter until it had done so for many pages, and see in this part of Joyce’s genius, as the text is so fluid and well crafted.

I also quite enjoyed the way in which religion is given such a prominent role in the text and shown to have influenced and shaped Stephen in various ways, but have been debating with myself recently whether or not the tortuously long sermon was required at the length it was. I suppose that the length and somewhat repetitive and cyclical nature of this highlighted the nature of religion to Stephen and to Joyce, not only in focus (mainly sin and salvation) and the way in which this the affects the narrative and the way that the protagonist views himself and his actions, but in its almost smothering, incessant inability to go away (as the sermon seems to have no way of ending). However, this did make it rather heavy going, as it was a lot more preachy than the sermons I am personally used to hearing, but did also show me another side to Joyce, as I didn’t realise he was able to write such text.

The section I had most issue with, though, was the way in which the book ended. After the way in which the blurb built the end of the text up, with Stephen’s final break with everything around him and need for Wildeian artistic freedom, I felt that this didn’t really come across. It was a bit of a damp squib, really- somewhat akin to a child having a tantrum, and then calmly walking out of the room. Perhaps it needs a second read to pick up on everything here.

That said, I  adored the book, and can only look towards my next reading of it!

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