Friday, August 10, 2007

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

I got very excited as I began this book, as the feeling of "Oh! This is why people make such a big deal about Joyce!" thoroughly suffused my being (I've not yet attempted either Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake, fearing that I am not yet sufficiently educated/prepared/etc., and the only Joyce I had read before this was The Dubliners, as an undergrad, with which I hadn't been impressed). The early pages, in which the author writes in the elegant and disjointed voice of childhood, are not unlike the way I write when recalling my own early childhood (although, of course, he is much better). The transitions from thought to thought, sentence to sentence, are empty spaces; each period stands for a gap in logic, because the thoughts of children do not follow the linear progression that adult thoughts follow. Rather than elaborating on the previous sentence, the next sentence moves onto another observation. The sentences are short and his rhythm is beautifully staccato. The dialogue, too, marked by dashes rather than quotation marks, is similarly elegant and staccato (again, reminding me of things I've written; one might read the influence of these pages on my collegiate stories, although I never read them until now). I thought, this is what Proust ought to have been.

After these precious opening pages, though, the author shifts. As the protagonist grows older, in and out of boarding schools, politics and religion and long speeches force their way into the narration (not unlike the way these things push their way into the otherwise "innocent" minds of children becoming young adults). Long pages are given over to a preacher's monologue on sin and its attending punishment of hellfire, after only the briefest respite from these containing the act of sin itself: two warm paragraphs in which the protagonist gives over to the hot mouth of a prostitute. The lengthy discourse on sin drives the young man to confession, where he tells all and is absolved. Lengthy discourses continue: political and religious conversations between the protagonist and his peers, petering out as the young man grows out of earlier religious convictions, but, rather than turning back to the warmth of sin, merely wallows in the chill of intellectual isolation. The pretensions of the developing intellect's thoughts are captured well, but it's no good reading. I would prefer an entire volume of "When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold," which comes from page one.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

Ulysses has been sitting on my bookshelf in an intimidating fashion for at least a year now. It makes good company for Gravity's Rainbow and Moby Dick. I think the trick is to go into it pretending that you're going to read it more than once. That way you don't feel quite so obliged to get it the first time.

By the way, I had no idea you read so much, and I will probably be asking you for recommendations from now on. Or at least for as long as I remain unemployed and thus possess an absurdly large amount of time, at least some of which might be devoted to fiction.