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

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nine: “Marketa Lazarová”

Early in his Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin writes:

Newton’s laws were valid in themselves even before Newton discovered them, and it was not this discovery that made them valid for the first time. But these truths did not exist as cognized truths—as moments participating in once-occurrent Being-as-event, and this is of essential importance, for this is what constitutes the sense of the deed that cognizes them. It would be a crude mistake to think that these eternal truths-in-themselves existed earlier, before Newton discovered them, the way America existed before Columbus discovered it. The eternity of truth cannot be contraposed to our temporality as a duration without end, for which our time is but a mere moment or segment.

Read that again closely, in case the difficulty came as a surprise. The gist of it is that gravity did not exist before Newton because it was the concept of gravity that was lacking. To state otherwise would be to deny history as, fundamentally, a process of development. This presents an ethical risk to filmic works about the past—mainly, historical fiction and biopics, in particular if they are set before the advent of film technology. Is it proper for us to impose a filmic perspective on a period of time when not even photography existed nor could be predicted? This is the type of thought that the Dogme 95 movement was created to provoke, its tight-assed pretensions notwithstanding. Besides the need for art to be creatively free in order to thrive, the only solution to this conceptual problem is likely to have one’s film be honest about its artifice and its re-presentational qualities—to make it clear to the audience that this is at best a reenactment and an imagination; that way, it isn’t a bait-and-switch.

These thoughts apply to thousands of films, but they were especially pertinent in my head during my viewing of Marketa Lazarová, which is often deemed the all-time greatest Czech film. If you know the film, you’ll understand it when I say that I’m not going to even try to parse the story now, and—as is already the case with a few of these films in my July challenge—I’ll likely write a more in-depth interpretation of it after a later second viewing. I will tell you, however, that it is a tremendous, exhausting film experience. Adapted by Frantisek Vlácil from a novel by Vladislav Vancura (which does not appear to be available in English), Marketa is set in medieval times and tells a complex story of a Christian nun—the title girl—who functions as a Helen of Troy caught between two clans and royalty, told out of chronological order, with sights and sounds that don’t always synchronize, stream-of-consciousness and other experiments. Were medieval epics as attuned to these innovations in storytelling as we are? I don’t know, as I’m not an expert on the subject, but I trust that the flashback and other plays on time have figured in storytelling from its inception, as have themes of the disjuncture between perception and “reality,” existence and thought, audio and visual cues. It would be glib to add that such formalisms are also reflective of memory and history as constructs, not unlike fiction. Nonetheless, I do not think it would be invalid if Marketa did (and I’m confident it did) exploit film to harken back to mechanisms of narrative that seem modernist but that actually have precedent in our most classic literary texts—to ensconce a present between past and future.

Some brief words on the technical aspects: The cinematography, by Bedrich Bat’ka, is in black and white, and the tones and deep contrasts that he is able to invoke between snow and foliage, sky and building, human and animal, and winter and spring accomplish what all B&W photography should strive to accomplish—to make it seem like the same images in color would not be much different. The music, by Zdenek Liska, is compared in the Criterion essay on the film to Stravinsky and Orff and rightly so. Deploying Gregorian voices, ethereal percussion and jarring strings in a neoclassicist fashion, Liska’s score is a successful microcosm of the film’s effort to adapt old ingredients to new arrangements. It will join a long list of scores of which I will scour YouTube for fragments, so I can listen to it casually. The dialogue and the very helpful title cards achieve the echelon of poetry, which is a compliment I give to an infinitesimal number of films. Most if not all of the set pieces—the pursuits between man and animal, the ambushes, the battles, the monologues, the bloody sacrifices, the dubious love scenes and their fallouts, the voice of God narrating the action—are standouts in their own right. If there is a flaw, it’s the blurred-lines sexual relationship between Marketa and her captor, which starts as a ravishing and ends as mutual romance. From today’s feminist standpoint, that’s pretty implausible. But what can you do? That’s the Middle Ages for you.

Grade: A

Tomorrow: A change in schedule. Today was a busy day, so I’ve watched the brief Je, Tu, Il, Elle instead of the epic Soldier of Orange, and I’ll watch Soldier tomorrow and review both films thereafter in a double post. A Woman Under the Influence will come the day after. Sorry for the delay, but I needed the time to recover from this doozy of a film.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nine: “Marketa Lazarová”