Literary Pop: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Author: James Joyce
Nationality: Irish
Year: 1916

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls 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 defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”

I think it’s fair to say that the easy readability of a book is inversely proportional to the number of footnotes/endnotes it contains (I’ll call this Dan’s Law).  James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a little under 200 pages long, and includes well over 500 explanatory notes.  With this in mind, believe me when I say that this book was not an easy read.  Consistently ranking high in “best novels of all time” lists everywhere, I get the feeling that A Portrait of the Artist is something that I’m going to have to read again when the time is right.

Joyce’s first novel follows the life of young Stephen Dedalus as he grows from confused, inquisitive Catholic schoolboy to inquisitive, confused university student.  Stephen is a young man with a lot of internal conflict, although it’s hard to work out how much of that is because he’s special and how much is because he’s a growing boy.  He is forced to deal with such situations as the decline of his family’s status, a girl who may or may not return his affections, and his own struggles with religion, morality and sin.

James Joyce as a Young Man
James Joyce as a Young Man

As I’ve already suggested, I struggled with this book.  I found the writing style very difficult to get used to; this is particularly a problem in the earlier parts detailing Stephen’s childhood, as the style develops and grows with the protagonist, but since the protagonist evolves into quite a pretentious character the text becomes very difficult to follow again towards the end.  From start to finish the book took me almost four months to read.  This is partly because of my unwillingness to commit to reading it (I read three other books in the middle) and partly because it was a very slow read whenever I did get round to diving in.  I probably read the thing in about three serious chunks of a week or so each, and that was with me deigning to look up roughly ten of the endnotes.  I’m sure I would have understood it far better if I’d committed to investigating every reference I didn’t understand, but I’m also sure I’d be reading it for at least a year if I did so.  And as anyone who’s ever read my blog will probably know (and anyone else can probably relate) I don’t have the time to do that when there are so many other things to fit in, nor do I expect to read this again any time soon when there are so many other books on my list already.  It seems that books can be grouped with albums in that they need to be experienced several times before I can really say I understand them, but unfortunately an album takes about an hour and this book took me several months.

Overall I guess there’s not much I can say other than you need to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for yourself, but of course far more informed people than me have already said that.  It’s intricately-written and some of the imagery is superb.  What I’ll add is that you shouldn’t take it lightly.  It’s often easy to pick up any book, including many of the classics, and breeze through it.  That’s entirely not the case with this book.  It’ll take some time, for sure, so give it some time and see if you can make something more of it than I did.

My Rating (first read): 6.5/10

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