Read part 1 of my thoughts here.
This weekend I managed to finish my second book by James Joyce. A Portrait is his semi-autobiographical work following a young man’s experiences with Catholicism, sexuality, aesthetics, and national identity, in the midst of his family’s financial decline. The novel begins with a child’s surreal perspective, develops into a more conventional narrative in the middle portion, then returns to a light stream-of-consciousness as the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, must make some decisions about his future.
This was a 2-star book, I think, but I gave it 1 star on Goodreads because I was feeling extra salty by the end of it.
I can understand why many readers would connect deeply with this work, so I hesitate to throw it under the bus with scathing critique. And indeed, I thought the first half was fairly strong. The psychological impact of a child’s school days and a young man’s religious deconstruction (particularly relevant for our times) were not lost on me. The family conflict and Irish identity, and how those things manifested in small but pervasive ways, was quite interesting. The prose was by no means unreadable; on the contrary, there were moments of great poetic beauty in Joyce’s writing. He has a knack for using repetition and color to wonderful effect.
It was in the last third/half that I had to force myself to finish the book. This is where Stephen develops his understanding of what Art is, namely through his daydreams and rambling conversations with college friends. If this portion had been shorter, it would have been less tedious, but it felt like it went on and on. Which is understandable, as I believe this was Joyce’s main point in writing the novel. I guess it just held less interest for me than I was hoping it would.
The other frustrating thing about A Portrait is that—as a friend pointed out—it’s just that. A painting of moments in time. Joyce jumps from phase to phase of Stephen’s life without showing us the full gradients in between. One minute he is a boy, the next he is an angsty teenager, the next he is deeply religious, the next he is an agnostic, etc etc. From a reader’s perspective, it is the transitional phases that interest me the most, but we are not allowed to observe those phases. We are expected to fill in the blanks. It is not hard to fill them in, but it makes for dull reading. I wanted Joyce to lead me through it all, to build up to those moments of crisis where the young man’s life changes instead of dropping me in them.
While grappling with this frustration, my mind went back to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, which was published a mere four years later. These two books are worth contrasting—the one following an elite American, the other following an impoverished Irishman. Both young men, however, have similar longings and dreams. I prefer Fitzgerald’s writing and protagonist, while the socioeconomic setting of A Portrait was more compelling. Together they provide a fascinating snapshot of what both “unites us and divides us.” If you had to read just one, though, I’d go with This Side of Paradise.