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

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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 Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

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Representative excerpt: “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely, and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.” (p. 1)

I cite the opening line because it is a howler. That line is a smug author spending way too much time trying to find the perfect word to describe Brooklyn. Not to mention, she brings up Williamsburg as an exception and then forgets about it and goes back to Brooklyn at large. And the struggle to twist “Prairie” and “Shenandoah” into adjectives is painful. Starting a five-hundred-page novel by vacantly stating the time and place is bad enough; dragging it out like this just to fill space is unspeakable. Memo to authors: hooks are important, put the work into them. “Brooklyn was serene.” Isn’t that already much better? As it is, the first hundred pages or so of this “classic” are very reflective of its first paragraph. The characters are coming-of-age chicken stock: precocious protagonist, scrappy kid brother, well-meaning ne’er-do-well father, loving mother toughened by life, an extended family of one-notes, all together in a healthy swell of poverty porn. We get broken-record, winded descriptions of recipes and wardrobes, and an uninteresting extended flashback. If this is supposed to be Betty Smith’s autobiography and thus not fiction, then it is not infused with enough energy to make it seem a unique, original vision. Fortunately, after the needless flashback, the novel improves. There are some fascinating insights into vaccination, Tammany Hall politics, holiday traditions, World War One, and more—granted, Smith’s blunt efforts at sociology can lean towards the heavy-handed—and there’s a death in the family that hits rough. Through her alter ego Frances Nolan, Smith also offers us a passionate yet humble Künstlerroman—a subplot shedding light on her development as an artist, which has several points that are quite profound for a YA book, such as the relationship between fiction and untruth. But for all in the novel that resonated with me, the clanging failures of the opening chapters only served to draw my attention towards the scenes that rang false. Lowlights in the back half include a shameless promo for modern maternity wards, a too-easy deus ex machina out of the poverty (recall Fassbinder saying that fiction is not the appropriate place for revolution), and a schematic, clichéd back-to-the-beginning cycle-closer for an ending. Most readers hunting for gems are not going to dig as deep as I did through the manure. If the beginning and ending of your novel is not up to par, then the effort you put into the middle is simply not going to be worth it. Your tree will choke before it has the chance to blossom.

Grade: C+

What’s Next: Another escape-themed novel based on real life: Anna Seghers’ Transit, about WWII refugees in Marseille; shortly thereafter, Fifth Business.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith