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'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' Review

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
Oxford University Press
There are two kinds of classic books. The former consist of all the stories that, once heard, seem to demand a telling: the war of Satan against Heaven, the journeys of a man convinced of his status as a knight, the struggle for redemption faced by a man who sells his soul to the devil.
These books have premises at which it would be difficult to imagine any competent writer failing. And, even in the case of artistic failure, the subject matter automatically precludes failure in the marketplace, as the artistically atrocious yet commercially successful Left Behind series, which deal with the can't-fail premise of the Apocalypse, might indicate.

Stories That Demand to be Told

So the stories that demand to be told--Moby-Dick, the Divine Comedy, the Odyssey, etc.--tend to have something going for them before questions of style, plot, coherence and wit even enter the critical equation. This type of great book addresses, in the most direct possible terms, the broad metaphysical questions that, however subconsciously, tend to grip our interest whether we like it or not: what is truth, and what is illusion? What exists beyond this life? What is good? What is evil? We can't help being drawn to this kind of book, based on its subject matter. By virtue of our existence as humans, we must be interested in this book.
And then there's the other kind of classic book: the book that feels like it's successful in spite of itself. One imagines the author--the Mephistophelian James Joyce, in this case--sitting in a Dublin pub, telling his friends the idea for his first novel over an obscene amount of liquor: "It'll be kind of about me, about my childhood and adolescence, only, see, part of it will be in baby talk." And then one imagines Joyce's friends nodding to themselves, slowly, and then changing the subject to politics.

There is nothing of general interest about the premise of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yes, everyone has been an adolescent, but not everyone, it is safe to say, has inhabited the consciousness of an isolated Irish boy during the closing years of the nineteenth century. Not everyone has experienced absolute epiphanic joy in being exonerated of the charges of having his glasses broken on the rugby field.
The Basics: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It's difficult to describe the plot of Portrait of the Artist without making it sound--in contrast to that of the big-question classic-character Great Books--specific, internal, almost impoverished. And yet, besides the similarly at-times-obscure Shakespeare ("All right, it's a revenge tragedy, except the guy just worries and talks to himself a lot"), there is no one better than Joyce--at least in classic English literature--at writing books so completely steeped in the essence of life.

Dickens has his vibrant grotesques; Austen has her wit and fidelity to moments of speech; Fielding has his ribald energy; and Nabokov has his icy specificity. But all of these are lenses, filters through which life is distorted--agreeably distorted, as might a mirror in a fun house. Joyce, like Shakespeare, distorts and organizes life, yes. But rather than a fun-house mirror, bending the shapes it reflects in order to frighten us or make us laugh, Joyce's labyrinthine prose is, ultimately, a clear window, and the distortions only consist of his arranging beautiful, specific things just beyond the glass.
The most interesting things to look at, in Portrait of an Artist, are the moments that catalyze Stephen Dedalus (largely Joyce's autobiographical stand-in) in his transformation from child to artist. In five chapters, we're taken through Stephen's early childhood in Ireland and confinement at boarding school, his dalliances with theater and hiring prostitutes, his retreat from sensory excess into religious devotion, his retreat from religious devotion into aesthetic, ascetic excess, and, ultimately, his retreat from Ireland and fellowship in favor of destiny.

Viewed as a series of plot points, the story is as interesting as any individual's story--and it's arguable that every individual has an interesting story. But we're still faced with the question: why this individual? Why his story? Joyce answers by drenching his moments in systems of imagery and consciously-controlled wordplay--all of it at first off-putting, distancing, like the pane of glass that separates us from the interior of the building. And then we stop focusing on the fact that the glass is glass, and start trying instead to see through it.

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