Of course, much has been written about this novel since it was first published in 1916. To call ‘A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man’ (Penguin – this publication) a landmark, would be grossly understating its impact.
So I’m not attempting to go into great depth, all that has already been done. I merely want to convey my own recollections of first reading it, way back in school.
For me, it was this book and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ that first truly opened my eyes to what we sometimes call serious literature. Both of them are, in their own way, semi-autobiographies and broke the mould of novel writing.
Naturally though, Lawrence and Joyce wrote in very different ways. I think Joyce wrote more intuitively, in a way which conjured up for me a wholly different milieu of imagery. He is a natural narrator, a story teller like many of his countrymen.
For example, when he describes Stephen Dedalus’ childhood, I get drawn into that world through the use of evocative child-like language; I become that child. I can remember endless classroom discussions about this part of the book.
And the world of Dublin in the late 19th century, was a very different world from that of the industrial Nottingham area, where Lawrence sets his book.
Although Joyce was to reject almost everything about his upbringing, his beliefs, his writing is nevertheless suffused with that imagery, bringing it alive, like new music as some describe.
So what are we to make of the criticism of those who first rejected his manuscript? The book is, when compared to more classic literature, without doubt somewhat formless and unconventional.
Yet, those of an artistic nature tend to be like this, especially over the last hundred years or so. I think Joyce, whose approach was understood and encouraged by none other than Ezra Pound, was simply bold enough to open up the taps of his creativity. The artist himself almost becomes like God, a creator in his own right, a bit like the Daedalus of legend, who built wings for himself and his son so that they could fly.
Joyce’s upbringing within the strict bounds of Catholicism, his training for the priesthood, was in retrospect the perfect grounding for such free artistry, once it was released from its captivity.
Ironically, Joyce’s world never seems to lose the colour of his Catholic upbringing, even though he ultimately rejected it. With Lawrence, the harsh, English Protestant world, seems altogether more grim, enlightened by the writer’s love of nature.
Joyce’s innate creativity, held back for so long, could only emerge later like a succession of Michelangelo masterpieces, hewn by the craft and intelligence of a native genius.
Unlike his other classics, Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses, I have successfully completed reading his first great novel.
Even so, one day I intend to finish the former two, although I suspect I will read ‘Portrait’ again before I do that.
copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019
Black paint on the front door
was peeling badly. Before knocking
I ran a crackling finger over it,
flakes falling into shade around my feet.
A small grey lady in garish pink
dressed for bed, squinted up at me,
something akin to Stravinsky
played in the darkness behind her.
“Take a pew!” – words betraying her age,
her station, a headmistress perhaps,
Arnold’s paintings in primaries all over low,
leaning walls in a room of gloom,
as if yellowed by years of smoke
and smelling of rose and age.
His preference for palette knife
and fingers were evident at once –
then a portrait, blue eyes staring at me,
almost violet, gorgeous like Liz Taylor
and hints of a grey uniform with pips.
Tea and scone arrived on Royal Albert
with shuffles of pink slipper.
“The portrait,” I pointed.
“Oh, that’s me, circa 1944,” she croaked,
standing bent. “But not his usual style.”
“No,” I had to agree, writing frantically,
excitement like sap
sent tingling up my spine.
So, let’s get this right:
She had trained in Ireland,
was deployed to France,
following allied troops into Germany
all the way to the end, in Berlin.
Hers an eccentric family of noble stock,
a quite irregular life lived on the edge.
Did I believe her? At first, yes.
At least until I closed the door
with that peeling paint.
Then I noticed the corner in the road,
breathed in the fresh air,
saw the rush of wind in poplars
and rooks cawing their honest presence.
The further I drove the less I believed.
Narrow roads led into town, a realisation
that still – the artist had eluded me
Poem and image © copyright df barker 2012