3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Year Published: 1916
Pages: 285
First Sentence: Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow that was coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named tuckoo. . . .
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

Having been subjected to Finnegans Wake, I will never forgive The List for placing two more of James Joyce's works in the Top Three. At least A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is short (unlike its title, which I'll be abbreviating as APotA for the rest of this review).

APotA is about Stephen Dedalus. It begins when he's a small boy attending a Jesuit school in Ireland, and follows him through his youth. Throughout the book the prose style evolves with him, so that things become more or less coherent as it goes on. Though we do meet some of Stephen's family, teachers, and friends, the focus is very tight on Stephen and his feelings throughout the whole thing.

I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I'm committed to giving my honest opinion: there were a few parts of the book that I actually liked. Certainly they were well-executed. One of these was the way Stephen and his friends behave. I enjoyed how they played with Latin (none of which I understood and probably all fart jokes knowing Joyce) while occasionally roughhousing in the street. I could picture them as a group of boisterous teen schoolboys.

The other thing that I actually found myself relating to a little bit (I'm as shocked as you are) was Stephen's struggle with religion. Especially good was his period of teen devoutness, something I didn't exactly go through myself but definitely witnessed among my peers. I had almost forgotten about it when I picked up this book, which portrays the phenomenon so well. Teen runs errant then has a religious encounter with some charismatic, fiery preacher or in this case a convincing priest in a confessional, convincing them to completely reform their ways... for a while. I do find it interesting that this religious trial balloon experience doesn't appear more often, at least in the fiction I've read. We see the Jesus freak types who started out that way and aren't likely to ever change, but we don't see the ones just trying it on for size.

Anyway, enough praise. I still don't like James Joyce and I didn't care for APotA. According to the introduction of the edition of the book I read, it began as another work called Stephen Hero, which was less tightly focussed on Stephen and instead features more of the characters and events occurring in his life over the course of the novel. In the final work, these are addressed obliquely—if at all. However, as is becoming more and more clear at this point in my reading life, the intense focus on a protagonist like Stephen isn't one I'm particularly interested in, especially not from James Joyce. Without those other characters to expand Stephen's world and give it texture, this book didn't hold my interest.

As for the prose: it is actually prose, to my great relief. (I continue to live in dread and hope regarding Ulysses.) I even marked a some passages, one of which is below (the other is the very end of the book, which doesn't seem like it should be allowed). The evolving style as Stephen ages is a neat trick, and the transition is surprisingly seamless. I'm not sure I've ever accused Joyce of a lack of adeptness in his writing, anyway.

I'm fairly sure that this is a book that won't stick with me. I guess we'll see.
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Devotion had gone by the board. What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.
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