A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

A long time ago I read Ulysses by James Joyce and for decades considered that was enough Joyce to last a lifetime; but I also had this book, and at 199 pages it was a lot shorter, maybe it was time for another go? Well I finished it this morning and if anything it was the tougher read of the two books. A series of disjointed episodes with several characters appearing seemingly at random but treated as though they had been there all the time however lacking context to place them within the tale, such as it is. It was also, to my considerable surprise, a book about Stephen Dedalus, the main character for the first third of Ulysses and here more clearly as a fictional representative of James Joyce himself. The book starts with the earliest memories of Stephen as a very small child and finishes with him deciding to leave Ireland just as Joyce did, and on the way Stephen attends the same schools and university as the author and his family has the money problems not helped by his father’s alcoholism. So is it a work of fiction or is it a disguised autobiography? It’s a bit of both, a fictionalised autobiography and with no way to separate the two parts, it also has several issues which made it a more difficult read even than the famously difficult Ulysses; the biggest of which is the twenty odd pages in the middle of the book that is basically a religious screed on life, death, heaven and hell which in places reads like a sermon from the more hellfire branch of the Catholic church and in others like an interminable list of confusing arguments, see below for a random sample of this section.

What you eventually get from this huge section is Stephen Dedalus’s slow retreat from the Catholic doctrine that he has been immersed in from childhood, first at home and then at the Jesuit boarding school of Clongowes Wood College and after a year there, when his father ran out of money to pay the fees for that place, on to the Christian Brothers O’Connell School in Dublin. This was exactly as Joyce himself did. By the end of the book as he is graduating from university Dedalus admits to his friend that he doesn’t want to take holy communion as his mother wishes because he has largely lost his faith “I will not serve that which I no longer believe”. Joyce himself had a somewhat more complicated relationship with Catholicism, certainly by the time he left Ireland he was not a practising Catholic but he attended church services during his self imposed exile on the continent, largely in Paris and Trieste, which lasted from 1904 until his death in 1941.

My other problem with the book is the regular use of Latin in the text, which I have never studied, and in this version of the book is not translated in footnotes which I suspect more modern editions do. My copy is from May 1948 during the crossover from Penguin Books in America to them going independent as Signet which explains the somewhat confusing references to Penguin, Signet and even New American Library (NAL) on the front cover. There is also Irish slang and several words that I didn’t recognise so that much like the Dean in the passage below I found myself putting the book down to look up a word.

A tundish by the way is nowadays a plumbing term for a device placed close to the pressure release valve that allows people to see if water has escaped the system due to excessive water pressure rather than a means of getting liquid into something but a century ago when ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ was written it was more usually a funnel used in the brewing industry.

All in all you are left with the impression that Joyce was more concerned with showing off his own perceived brilliance than telling a coherent story and at times I was tempted to give up but by then I was half way through so kept on going. Fortunately the final chapter, of the five, did read more like the book I was expecting so it was worth ploughing on. Will I read more Joyce? Probably not; but then again I said that after finishing Ulysses. I don’t have any more of his works on the shelves though so it would have to be a new purchase.


2 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

  1. Interesting comments! I read this when I started to read Ulysses a couple of years ago, to learn more about Stephen Dedalus and thought it was brilliant. Those small boys must have been absolutely terrified by the priests and their hellfire and damnation. Quite a few of the characters also turn up in Dubliners (as well as Ulysses) so that could be a next read!


    1. I don’t know whether to try any more or just give up on the basis that Joyce isn’t for me. Some writers work for people, some don’t and Joyce simply isn’t calling me to read another of his works. Yes the hellfire stuff must have been horrendous for the children involved but does that excuse the pretentiousness of the writing, I’m not sure it does. I’d much rather read Orwell

      Liked by 1 person

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