52 Weeks of Literature, Book Nine: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce


NB: Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m way behind. That’s because of two reasons: 1) there’s been a lot of hectic stuff going on in my life in the past few months, and 2) I was derailed by one particularly godawful novel, which I’ll get to in due time. To make this project easier, I am abandoning my original schedule, and while I intend to commit to the fifty novels I listed, I am reviewing this in lieu of Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs, because that book is mostly pulp, a solid English translation of it is wanting (astonishingly), and there’s more I have to discuss about Joyce.

Representative quote: “The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann; and the memory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy. His morning walk across the city had begun, and he foreknew that as he passed the sloblands of Fairview he would think of the cloistral silver-veined prose of Newman; that as he walked along the North Strand Road, glancing idly at the windows of the provision shops, he would recall the dark humour of Guido Cavalcanti and smile; that as he went by Baird’s stonecutting works in Talbot Place the spirit of Ibsen would blow through him like a keen wind, a spirit of wayward boyish beauty; and that passing a grimy marine dealer’s shop beyond the Liffey he would repeat the song by Ben Jonson which begins: ‘I was not wearier where I lay.'”

The oeuvre of James Joyce is one of a handful in literature that focuses on chronicling the trajectory of a lifetime. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man depicts Stephen Dedalus’ childhood, from infancy to coming-of-age; Ulysses contrasts and connects Dedalus in his twenties with Leopold Bloom deeper into adulthood; Finnegan’s Wake (from what I imagine) is firmly in the realm of night, dreams, senility and death—the end of all cohesion. As this body of work develops, an ironic transition occurs: as the scope broadens, the length of time depicted dwindles. Portrait is a regularly paced novel spanning a decade a half; Ulysses is an epic covering 24 hours; Wake is an epic that may well be about the evening and the dreams thereafter, which may well last mere seconds. Perhaps Joyce perceived that as we age, until we reach our twilight, our memory and concentration sharpen, and we start to appreciate the constancy of the day as opposed to the vicissitudes of the year. As our fundamental units of time shift, we pay more attention to the infinitude within the second. Time is a spatial dimension that is continuously expanding, and as it proceeds, the universe’s entropy increases; the complexity of a minute of adulthood matches that of a month of childhood, so there’s no need to dwell on as much time. This is why Portrait is straightforward, where Ulysses begins as readable before the narrative gradually subsumes into a linguistic chaos, to which Wake forfeits completely. It is a credit to Joyce that he was keen enough to offer readers a template for this progression in his volume of fifteen short stories, Dubliners, which lengthen from a few pages to a novella as they cover adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age, before wrapping up fittingly with “The Dead”.

This is part of why I think Joyce remains a scepter haunting the world of literature, famous and well read despite his serious anti-commercial aspects—revered for the merits of his prose and technique while reviled for the alienating difficulties of most of Ulysses and all of Wake. For all his indulgences, he is well attuned to the harmonies innate in time—the rising action, climax and falling action that map out a day as well as they do a life (a day and a life each working as synecdoche for each other), and that have served as the foundation for almost all fictional narrative this side of Aristotle. We may not understand where we’re going, but at least we have an inkling of how we’re getting there. In an era in which academia is growing narrower and further from the common man’s pop culture, the best conduit into Joyce’s body of work—and it is a very rewarding and worthwhile body—is Portrait, even more so than Dubliners. The first of the novel’s five chapters, while in third-person, is mediated by the limited language and knowledge of Dedalus’ nine-year-old self and is thus easy to follow. As Dedalus grows older, the prose takes on more maturity and creativity, and the details are conveyed with greater aesthetic effort, until, by the final chapter, we delve beyond the concrete and tactile into Dedalus’ burgeoning, gutsy philosophies. And we are ready for it, because Joyce has prepared us for it and eased us into it with pitch-perfect pacing—so contrary to what some readers may believe, he does give a shit about the reader. This makes Portrait more relatable than Ulysses, which is mired on occasion by overblown parodies of archaic literary forms that no longer really matter.

As a quintessential Künstlerroman—namely, an artwork depicting an artist’s (perhaps its artist’s) development, as the title would tell us—Portrait is less a narrative than it is a meditation on a theme, which in this case is youth’s interaction with adult authority. We all trust at the beginning of life that the authority apparatus is right, even when it damages us, in which event it convinces us that we are to blame. We grow out of this phase. We realize that this authority is not the only world there is. There are other modes of thought outside the spheres of our childhoods that can be brought into dialogue with and used to challenge the typical third-rate bureaucrats who have held sway over our formative years. Hence, the push and pull against the system begins. Some fall for the system, some are defeated by it for good, some vow to have their revenge later, some escape it and stake it out on their own, and a charismatic few rise above it to build a new, more effective culture. Dedalus (read: Joyce) does all of those things at different points, and it’s a breathtaking journey. The clash between old and young generations is a pertinent theme in today’s political domain, and one that I connect with personally on a deep level. Reading this, I could feel that I was with Dedalus as he approached the rector’s office to protest Father Dolan’s unfair punishment of him. I was with him as Heron beat him with a cane for naming Byron, not Tennyson, as the greatest Romantic poet. I was with him as he went to lose his virginity to a prostitute, and as a series of typical Irish priests brainwashed him with their eloquent fear-mongering bullshit theological lectures on Hell and damnation, and moved him to confess his lust and become a pious Catholic. I was with him as he wrestled with the choice of whether to cross the Rubicon and enter the priesthood or abandon religion and embrace some other, more aesthetic form of spirituality. And when he made his decision, I cheered.

This, more so than Ulysses, has become one of my favorite novels. I usually recoil from critics and academics who say that the most challenging of an author’s works should be read last because otherwise, a reader won’t be “ready” or “mature” enough for them. I’m more of the go-for-broke type. I must say, however, that Portrait is very much in a series preceding Ulysses and ought to be read first, preferably during high school when one is wont to relate to Dedalus and his dilemmas, which are universal and apply far beyond the medium of religion. Key to Joyce’s legend is his prose, which is superlative. There’s a reason the Irish are known for their “gift of gab.” Their musical accent, their unique vernacular structures, and their pitch-dark sense of humor constitute the best representation of the English language in the world. As far as Irish literature goes, one could do a lot worse than Joyce. The historical parallels and allegories that pepper Portrait, Dubliners and Ulysses can lean on the side of schematic—single characters standing in for entire nationalities and political parties, competing against each other in sports and cards and the like. When you have writing on this level, though, such shortcomings are easy to forgive. Joyce particularly excels in his descriptions of the weather’s effect on environment, and in using details of physical sensations (some stemming from the weather) as metaphors for psychological states. Where lesser writers resort to cliché, Joyce innovates. There is no instance in Portrait of structural contrivance; no effort is made to impress the reader with stream of consciousness and pandering pretension. Much of what makes the Joyce of Portrait a modernist is what he does merely with Hamlet’s “words, words, words.” There is a case to write his name in gold not for his aggressive revolutionism, but simply for his being a great writer.

Grade: A+

Next up: An equally masterful work of literature from the other I*ELAND nation.

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Nine: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Two: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk

Turkish Nobel literature laureate Orhan

Representative excerpt: [From the perspective of a counterfeit gold coin] “…let me list for you the various things I might be exchanged for: the foot of a young and beautiful slave girl, which amounts to about one-fiftieth of her person; a good-quality walnut-handled barber’s mirror, edges inlaid with bone; a well-painted chest of drawers decorates with sunburst designs and silver leaf worth ninety silver pieces; 120 fresh loaves of bread; a grave site and coffins for three; a silver armband; one-tenth of a horse; the legs of an old and fat concubine; one buffalo calf; two high-quality pieces of china; the monthly wage of Persian miniaturist Mehmet the Dervish of Tabriz and the majority of those of his like who work in Our Sultan’s workshop; one good hunting falcon with cage; ten jugs of Panayot’s wine; a heavenly hour with Mahmut, one of those young boys world-renowned for his beauty, and many other opportunities too numerous to specify.” (pp. 102-3, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar)

Retro will always be in vogue. Nostalgia sells. The desire to go back in time, resurrect the past and ape the fashions of eras long gone is in all of us. The present in this way is a concave mirror, reflecting and shining a light on previous generations to better define itself while itself remaining nebulous, and while the future remains a total blank. Do we really ever know our own zeitgeist—the styles and auras that make our place and time unique—until some decades later? How exactly should we define the 2010s, since we are already halfway through them? We might answer that we’ve assembled the 2010s from the detritus of the still-opaque ‘00s, which was itself crafted out of the fragments of the now-clearer 1990s, etc. From a historiographical perspective, it helps that the Old and New Millennia can be cleanly differentiated by 9/11—until we remember that Osama bin Laden was of course one of the most serious geopolitical threats of the ‘90s. Lost in the present, we retreat to the past and seek answers from it. My Name is Red, the novel that (along with Snow) propelled the Turkish postmodernist Orhan Pamuk to his 2006 Nobel triumph, draws much of its power from the genres and forms of yore. Parables, fables, poetry, Quran interpretations, a traditional love story and a classic murder mystery all amass into one hodgepodge in which they’re able to riff and commentate on each other and themselves. It looks innovative and challenging, but the ingredients are familiar. Pamuk brings back centuries-old modes of storytelling to bear on the present, to remind us of lessons we may have forgotten, to reintroduce perceptions new to us but well-known in history.

Written before and published in English around the time of 9/11, Red is well positioned to provide a discourse on Islam, as Turkey seems one of the few nations (Albania is another) able to compromise Islam with secularism and syncretism. Set in late-1500s Istanbul, it opens with the murder of one Ottoman miniaturist—an esteemed book illustrator—by another. Both are involved in the task of creating a series of miniatures celebrating the life and reign of their Sultan. This task is kept confidential, as it essentially demands several affronts to Islam such as idolatry and blasphemy. Small wonder it leads to bloodshed. The murder mystery itself is, in execution, the novel’s most egregious blemish: there are only three suspects, who are not as much characters as they are vessels for the narration of parables. Besides the killer—who is privileged to share his point-of-view in anonymity—the men are distinguished by themes, not by personalities. This makes the reader’s duty of trying to solve the murder a near-impossible sludge. Thankfully, the narrative’s other major component—its love story—is much more riveting. The one non-suspect miniaturist, Black, returns to Istanbul after a long exile with the intention of wedding his widowed cousin, Shekure, the daughter of his uncle and mentor, Enishte. This story and other subplots are paralleled neatly—like a single prism showing off a rainbow of color—with the Turkish legend of Hüsrev and Shirin, which is similar to the Greek legend of Oedipus in that Hüsrev is envied and slaughtered by his own son. Divisions are drawn across various generational lines; there are not just conflicts of old versus young, but also those of tradition versus innovation, and of the Quran versus free expression. Mired in this mess is the question of how the Sultan’s book will represent the Ottoman Empire to Europe and the world.

It’s heady stuff, sometimes to its own detriment. There are times when Pamuk is more interested in displaying his vast knowledge of Turkish history, mythology, art and literature than in getting on with the narrative—and this only serves to bring more attention to the tedious regimentation of the many meta-literary parables, most of which blend into and repeat each other. When he does push the story forward, it’s thrilling. His most profound literary choice is to distill that story between multiple perspectives, some of which I doubt any author has thought up before. The color red, the alleged gold coin from the quote above, Death more as a condition than as a figure, a young version of the author inserted conveniently into the text—all of these and more are endowed with their own voices and personas, which are both original and plausible. Such personifications give credence to Red’s most haunting theme—the fundamental Islamic concept that “the blind and the seeing are not equal,” namely that the capacity to see does not alone indicate sight. Herein, the miniaturists who aspire to greatness are necessarily impelled to become blind in old age, whether by intense visual labor or by deliberate injury, so as to let their artistic talents ossify and to perceive the unknowable as Allah does. To see in a spiritual sense sometimes does require forsaking the privilege of physical sight and of learning through viewing. Perhaps we fail to define our eras and our religious/spiritual beliefs because we rely too much on the present we can “see”, and too little on the past we cannot.

Grade: B+

Next week: I head home to New York to read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Two: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk