A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first read James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1916) as an adolescent, almost 50 years ago. The novel made a huge impression on me then. The sublime beauty of Joyce's prose made it clear to me that I better become an engineer or a mathematician because I obviously had no talent for writing, even if I had dearly wanted to be a writer. I have just reread the book, and I still think it is one of the greatest works of world literature. Each of the five chapters of the book contains more wisdom and beauty than the entire Internet. The conversation between Stephen and Lynch in the fifth chapter carries way more meaning than all posts on Facebook combined.
"A Portrait" is a fictionalized autobiography of James Joyce's youth; in the novel he appears as Stephen Dedalus. Thousands of reviews by much better writers than myself are available so I will just offer some loose thoughts. J.M. Coetzee's "Boyhood" ( which I review here) deals with similar issues. It is also similar in its greatness. Coetzee's manufacturing of childhood memories is on the same level as the literary, political, and religious awakenings of Stephen Dedalus. I do not know which book I like better. They are both magnificent. Coetzee's book is politically sharper, but Joyce's is psychologically deeper. And it shows how little people changed in about one hundred years, despite all the technology.
The first chapter, about Stephen's childhood, is to me the most striking. The broken sentence patterns convey the fragmentary nature of childhood memories. In the third chapter we witness Stephen's struggles with emerging sexuality ("The sootcoated packet of pictures which he had hidden in the flue of the fireplace and in the presence of whose shameless or bashful wantonness he lay for hours sinning in thought and deed."). The chapter also contains monumental Jesuit sermons on the horrors of hell and the nature of sin. The fifth chapter showcases Stephen's growing fascination with language. The famous conversation between Stephen and Lynch about arts and beauty is the focus of that chapter. As is the later conversation between Stephen and Cranly.
Here's a passage from the fifth chapter: "A soft liquid joy flowed through the words where soft long vowels hurtled noiselessly and fell away, lapping and flowing back and ever shaking the white bells of their waves in mute chime and mute peal and soft low swooning cry; and he felt that the augury he had sought in the wheeling darting birds and in the pale space of sky above him had come forth from his heart like a bird from a turret quietly and swiftly." Utterly magnificent. J.M. Coetzee writes equally beautifully, but his strength - because of his education - is the mathematical precision of the language rather than Joyce's lyricism.
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