On Reading James Joyce

Room Overlooking the Harbour (Emigrants) - James Tissot I should have titled this post “On Reading Early James Joyce” because it only concerns Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the former being published when Joyce was thirty-two, in 1914 (however the collection was finished around 1905 and underwent a long and complicated publication process), the latter — when he was thirty-four.

I started with A Portrait of the Artist, a semi-autobiographical narrative that follows young Stephen Dedalus from confused childhood to experimental adolescence to revelatory maturity. Stephen is a strange and isolated character in search of his identity, not the identity of his family, his religion, his country, but an identity that is uniquely his own. This was the core characteristic that I deeply empathised with, and I feel that Stephen’s narrative reaches its peak when he discovers a connection between himself and his Greek namesake, the father of artists.

However, I did not fully agree with nor did I accept the methods by which Stephen navigates his quest. He is moody, careless, he dashes between extremes (a quality I myself own up to, but one not so erratic as Stephen’s), he is entirely self-absorbed. Stephen’s relationship with religion is very puzzling, and as I understand Joyce’s was as well. Much of the novel is set in a religious atmosphere, beginning with Stephen’s childhood in a Jesuit school and including a ten-page sermon on hell (ugh! reading that was hell, and I admit I skipped a couple of pages…). The novel requires a lot of patience in this respect.

Criticism of characters and plot aside, James Joyce’s writing is pure gold on paper. His preferred style is stream of consciousness, and he has perfected it to flow on a page so naturally! Even during moments when I hated Stephen or hated the content of the book, not once did I doubt the quality of Joyce’s prose.

His magnificently lyrical descriptions of human emotions, the brightest and darkest corners of our minds, are also well-displayed in the fifteen short stories which together make up Dubliners. I enjoyed this collection more than I enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist for several reasons.

Dubliners maintains keen and intense focus throughout all of the stories. Where A Portrait of the Artist is nebulous, resembling more a free-styled memoir than a rehearsed novel, the stories in Dubliners, some of them only four pages long, carry the themes of the collection with reassuring constancy. At times I felt that Joyce accomplished more in ten pages of a short story than he did in all three hundred of his novel.

Although united by a common purpose and a common setting, the stories still are versatile and diverse in their characters, situations, and narrative modes. My favourites are “The Sisters”, “Eveline”, “A Little Cloud”, “A Painful Case”, and “The Dead”. That last one is much longer than the rest, but it is also the best (in my humble opinion).

The stories in Dubliners heavily deal with, well, Dublin and Ireland. While reading A Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners I learned a lot about the country’s political and cultural situation. Joyce describes the frustrations of Irishmen in trying to achieve political as well as cultural independence, the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism, Ireland’s attempts to assert itself as a unique and talented country through cultural movements, etc., but also the country’s isolation in the world.

I would say to fully comprehend Joyce’s intention in his works, the reader would require contextual knowledge, which is why I’d recommend reading well-annotated editions. (I read A Portrait of the Artist with notes which was super helpful! For Dubliners I had to rely on Google which turned into a pesky task.) Even so, Joyce’s style is not very revelatory and demands its reader to be a very insightful person (which I don’t think I was, I’m afraid…). While I understood all of the stories, on the surface at least, I don’t think I really understood them in all of their potential. It might be, and probably is, that a lot of symbolism and metaphors went over my head.

As a post scriptum I shall add that the star ratings are not included in this entry because they are a very shallow representation, at least in this case, of my feelings towards these two works. You can visit my Goodreads to sate that curiosity, and you can see that yes, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man did get a lower rating and Dubliners a higher one, however my opinion of Joyce is far more complicated than that. I am very glad to finally acquaint myself with this literary genius, and I would love to take this acquaintance further into Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Sometime.

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