Reflecting on the centenary of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
By Daniel Brady
A fond memory I seem to recall was, when discussing literature, someone telling me that ‘great literature starts with an ending and ends with a beginning’. Whilst I may not agree entirely, there should be no doubt that great literary articles should start with great literature; however, not the ending (fear not: spoilers are the least of your concerns with Joyce).
‘A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a cranes and pure, save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down… But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.’
This aesthetic driven, orgasmic epiphany emerges as A Portrait’s most powerful resolution, the protagonist’s flight from faith and his acceptance of creativity and sensuality unfolding at the beginning of the final stages of his spiritual journey.
December 29th, 2016 marked the centenary of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – a novel often ranked amongst the greatest literary works of the 20th Century, however often overshadowed by Joyce’s landmark work Ulysses.
Written in 1916, A Portrait is heavily autobiographical, depicting the childhood and adolescence of Stephen Dedalus and his growth into artistic self-consciousness. It traces the religious and intellectual awakening of the protagonist and mirrors Joyce’s life – it sees Stephen question and turn against the Catholic Church and Irish Nationalism, culminating in his self-exile from Ireland to Europe.
The timelessness of Joyce’s prose is perhaps what makes it so important, one instance being the political-religious debate that still grips Ireland and the solace many find in Joyce’s observations, of which are useful to understanding early Irish national consciousness.
Whilst not for the faint-hearted, A Portrait’s legacy is what helps to define it as such an important novel, and a must read. Speaking of the influence of A Portrait, Irish poet John Montague said: ‘No one could overestimate the effects of [the book] on later Irish writers … or on the national psyche: many young Irishmen came to painful consciousness reading those corrosive pages.’
For me, the beauty of Joyce’s first novel comes not only from its powerful disentanglement from country and religion, but from his artistic ability. Joyce’s words mesmerize, drifting from the page and permeating the subconscious. They appear not as ink on a page, but as timeless figures themselves driving the plot. They feel alive, still palpitating and writhing against the weight of structure they urge us to disregard.
Ultimately, Joyce was determined to free himself from the restraints of his nationality and language, once stating ‘I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition’. His unique vernacular assists him in these endeavours, and, whilst not as intricate as that developed in Ulysses, guides us from the wide-eyed innocence of tender youth to a Dantean vision of the eternal and pestilent torments of Hell.
Perhaps my love for this novel draws on its timeless boldness in the face of adversity, which resounds more than ever during our time. Joyce wrote: ‘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.’
Through his own journey, Joyce illuminates the necessity of tearing down the shroud which obscures vision. To truly achieve personal transcendence, we may find it necessary to tear away at our language, our ideals and our comforts. Whilst it may be in vain, we quickly learn that the journey to an ending unleashes aeons of beginnings.
Featured image courtesy of The Daily Beast, Bettman/Corbis