My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In the interest of full disclosure, James Joyce and I have a somewhat complicated relationship. For all that I was born and raised in the U.S., I inherited a love of all things Irish from my grandfather who was the son of two Irish immigrants. So I find Joyce’s attitude towards Ireland and the Irish rather obnoxious. I utterly loathed him when I had to read the Dubliners in high school but after re-reading the book a year or so ago, I came to grudgingly admit that there were stories in the collection that I liked and so I decided to try A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and see if Mr. Joyce and I could come to terms with each other.
Now that I have finished the book, I really don’t think that Joyce and I are ever going to be kindred spirits. It took me 2 months to get through it, which is highly unusual for me. I am a fast and obsessive reader and tend to devour books. Typically it is a struggle to get me to put down a book once I have started reading it but instead I trudged through Portrait and at one point, I had to put it down and read some Jane Austen just to break up the frustration of slogging through the ENDLESS pages describing Hell in such minute detail that it was as torturous as anything Dante could have imagined or enduring the incredibly pedantic lectures on Aesthetics that Stephen insists on inflicting on a schoolmate (mostly for the benefit of hearing himself talk). It also didn’t help that Joyce throws in so many phrases in Latin and so many references to philosophy, religion, and Irish politics that I probably should have picked up an annotated copy of the book.
Still, the book started off promising. Even though I can’t stand anything I have ever read about Joyce as a person, I do have to admit that the man had talent and could do fascinating things with the language. Joyce’s writing style is even more impressive when you consider that it really hadn’t been done before. Although I am loath to admit it, because really Joyce’s ego is more than sufficient without my contributing to it, Joyce’s use of language in this book is nothing less than brilliant. Stephen’s mental voice grows and changes as he matures and although it really makes the reader work hard in order to get what is happening now, the choppy, stream of consciousness style that Joyce was pioneering is excellent for evoking brief flashes of emotion and memory in a way that almost bypasses mental processing and goes straight for the emotions. There is a scene in a schoolyard right after Stephen has been sent to school for the first time and the little snippets of various conversations all jumbled together really gave me that new kid in school sense of vulnerability and feeling out of place.
I also really liked the idea of language and narrative being such a formative influence, where even when Stephen’s father tells him a childish little bedtime story, Stephen places himself inside the story as “Baby Tuckoo.” Crafting your own unique identity and finding a legitimate voice to tell your story is one of the key struggles of any coming of age story. And what could have made Stephen’s coming of age so fascinating was that there were a lot of voices trying to shape and influence his story and how he tells it. What makes it even more interesting is that Stephen’s experiences are very similar to the broader Irish experience at a time where Irish Nationalists, England, and the Catholic Church (complete with three different languages: English, Latin, and Gaelic) were all competing to control Ireland’s narrative and destiny.
Having said that, what frustrated me the most about this book is that, while I sympathize with Stephen’s need to find a voice and a story of his own, I hate that the voice he finds is always a @!#! sneer and his story is always one of extremes. No one can ever live up to Stephen’s exacting standards. He has a constant holier-than-thou attitude (or unholier-than-thou, as the case may be). He is always judging others for one reason or another and is convinced that no one has ever struggled as he struggles. He just distances himself from everyone else as he throws himself from one dramatic epiphany to the next in his quest to be the most special little snowflake of all. His schoolmates and “friends” are just there for him to show off to, endlessly pontificating on his theories of aesthetics or forcing them to listen to his “confessions” of sin, depravity, and indifference to Faith and country. His attitude towards women is literally a Madonna-Whore complex. I don’t know if Joyce or even Stephen (with his dramatic tendency to put himself inside stories and books) was trying to set himself up as a Dante figure with his own personal Beatrice but it really came across as creepy and angry and not that far from sounding like a serial killer. He is cold, self-absorbed, and arrogant to the point where I just wanted to slip inside the book and smack him, smack him really, really, REALLY hard.
But for all his sense of superiority, he really is mostly just talk. Other than attending classes (during which his thoughts almost always wander), we rarely see Stephen DO anything, and certainly not anything to justify all his attitude and pretension. He obsesses about a girl but doesn’t talk to her until the end of the book when he is about to go away. (This doesn’t stop him from being very bitter about her talking to other men, including a priest, as if she is somehow obligated to remain faithful to a relationship he hasn’t done anything to initiate). He writes a handful of poems but doesn’t show any real discipline about developing his skills or producing anything on a regular basis. He receives an expensive education that his family could ill afford but doesn’t do anything with it. Even as his family sinks further into poverty, he continues to soak up all their resources and contribute nothing in return. In fact, he resents them for not living a lifestyle that is up to his standards of beauty.
With all of this, any sympathy I might have had for Stephen as a character or any appreciation I might have had for the skill of Joyce’s writing got completely drowned out by the sheer arrogance and pretension that radiated off of the page. I don’t know what happens to Stephen as he wings his way out of Ireland to become an artist but I do know that I am not in any hurry to read another James Joyce novel to find out.