Thursday, January 22, 2009

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

Well, let's get the easy stuff out of the way. So the book is really well-written, no question. Portrait, written in 1916, was ranked by Modern Library as the third best novel of the 20th century, in fact (notably, novel number one is Ulysses, the next on my list of Joyce to read, so apparently, Modern Library likes the Joyce...). I won't get into an argument about the specific rightness or wrongness of the list (Amanda would root hard for numbers 4, 6, and 7 for instance), but I will say, the book certainly belongs on the list, and high up on the list. It's a beautiful, fascinating novel, and I'm sure I could read it 17 more times, and still have missed most of it. Huzzah for Master Joyce. My praise for the king would add little value so I won't spend much time on it.

So, that being said...

I've heard here and there in reviews of various books, their being described as compassionate. It's one of those words that (honestly) I think reviewers throw in when a novel tickles them because it sounds grand and big and compelling (see here, here, or here). Kind of like when a book is described as 'a triumph'. It's the sort of word that probably meant something the first time it was said. I've never really understood what it meant.

I take that back, now that I think of it, I've read compassionate books. I know I have. It's the sort of book, where you feel like the author has real compassion for the character. And I don't want to demean that kind of novel, it is a beautiful thing. Gaskell, even if she was somewhat blind, seemed to feel a real compassion for the people in her book's world, in North and South, for instance. It feels good to read this kind of book, because you feel a love for someone you didn't understand before, and because this new love for others makes you love the author, too. It's the sort of novel that gently shows you a way to be better. I'm grateful for that, because I know I need to be better, a great deal better.

Portrait is not that kind of book, but compassionate is just the word for it nonetheless, because this book has compassion not for it's characters, with whom it is mercifully honest, but with the reader itself.

When I reviewed Dubliners, I talked about something that I see now as the embryo of this book:
I loved the characters, I desperately wanted to help them, only it wasn't like normal, the sort of feeling I have towards myself, it was the feeling you feel towards your children, or your close friends, the sort of maddening, intense feeling you have towards a real person who has an ideal self that they just seem to refuse to be.
Well, in Dubliners, it's like you're in the world of the book, but forced to be yourself, estranged from the people around you. In Portrait, he so effectively decimates the character of the narrator, that the 3rd person narrative is at once the narrative of the reader and the narrative of the character. It's hard to explain. When I read a book normally, it is as if I become the main character. When I read this book, it is as if the main character became me. Instead of me melting away, Stephen Dedalus (the protagonist) melted away, and I was left reading a book about myself. Of course, I didn't go through a period of my life, as Mr. Dedalus did, where I started to frequent prostitutes, or feel I wanted to be a Catholic priest. But that's just it, the experience of the book is so intimate and the author is so absent, that I was left with a direct investment into the action of the story. The actions around his life were irrelevant, because the experience of being Stephen Dedalus was the experience of being human - particularly of being human, highly imperfect, and possessed of the universal desire to do something that means something.

Stephen never really existed in the novel, only I did, and as a result, there is a terrible feeling of being at danger, the entire book, that the book has pried you open, and left you at it's own mercies. And there comes the beautiful part: the book tells you all your imperfections, it shows you the depths of the worst of you, it is not shy, or tactful, or gentle, but it loves you anyway. It was beautiful to read a book that has a hero who never manages to be a hero, but who feels like one anyway, a book that finds beautiful things in the humdrum tragic accident that is who we all are. You know, when you are reading the book, that it knows your secret, that it knows that your life is a wasted opportunity, a chance for greatness, that's devolved through stupidity, ennui, or sheer bad chance into merely goodnes, or even less at times. The book knows that you have failed - it doesn't tell you so, it just knows it - it know you've failed because everyone fails. But, it knows how to make a story out of who you are, instead of who you should have been:
--You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake,and perhaps as long as eternity too.


Amanda said...

I would actually root for 4, 7, and 10 - The Sound and the Fury is not my favorite Faulkner book.

So, do you think I'll be able to get through this one when I read it later this year?

Rebecca Reid said...

This sounds fascinating. I love how you describe it. I've always been rather scared of Joyce. But I will definitely give him a try again.

Unknown said...

Thanks. I was worried my review would be completely incoherent, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I can completely sympathize - James Joyce is presented in a very scary way.

hamilcar barca said...

i like your choice of a picture for this review.