Here we are, over a week into March, and I’m just getting around to my last book of the 1910s. I guess I should have expected James Joyce to put me behind schedule. I bet putting readers behind schedule was one of his main goals with his writing. So anyways, I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916. It is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of young-man/artist Stephen Dedalus. It follows his life and philosophical musings from a very young age into his twenties. Not too much in the way of plot. Just a lot of Dedalus talking to his family, peers, and teachers about life, death, and everything in between. Also, I guess reading PotA before Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, makes the latter a lot easier to read. Though don’t expect me to read Ulysses anytime soon.
A small plot summary: Stephen Dedalus grows up in Catholic Ireland. He does well in school, but is bullied. He begins to think a lot about the culture in which he growing up, and starts to realize some problems he has with it. Eventually, after moving to Dublin with his family, Dedalus succumbs to his growing sexual frustrations and begins to see prostitutes. Some time later, he goes on a religious retreat with his class, where they listen to sermons designed to strike the fear of God into the students–and, in the case of Dedalus, they work like a charm. He decides that he will repent and excels in his religious studies. His instructors ask if he has aspirations of becoming a priest, at which point he accepts the fact that he was never as convinced by the religion as he should be to become a priest, so he gives up on religion. He then attends university, where he continues to be successful academically, but also begins to realize all the issues he has with Ireland’s religion, politics, and education. He eventually decides that he must leave Ireland to fully realize his potential as an artist and human, since his home country puts too many restrictions on his growth as an artist.
As dense as some parts of the novel were, I actually really enjoyed it. If you are a fan of a lot of angsty philosophical musings (imagine if Holden Caulfield got ahold of a thesaurus), then you will definitely enjoy this book. It is also apparently the most accessible of James Joyce’s novels, and while that is not saying a whole lot, it is not nearly as daunting as the behemoths Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (not to say I have even attempted either of those two, nor will I for this blog). Definitely readable, if you have the time and patience.
Most of this book probably went right over my head, so I will spare any attempts at analysis, and, as usual, simply present some of my favorite quotes. Enjoy!
“He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died.”
“And thanks be to God, Johnny, said Mr Dedalus, that we lived so long and did so little harm.”
“And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.”
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”
“This race and this country and this life produced me, he said I shall express myself as I am.”
“The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
“The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.”
“Stephen began to enumerate glibly his father’s attributes.
—A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a story-teller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.”
“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.”
“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”
“I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”
[Really the core of all atheism, I would think.]
“[I] Have read little and understood less.”
[I feel you there, Stephen. Though I don't believe you.]
“Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
APRIL 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
[The very end of the book is composed of Stephen Dedalus' journal entries from after the end of the narrative. These are the final 1.5 entries.]
Ok now that I’m belatedly finished with the 1910s, time to start with the 20s!!