[Authorís note: Having nothing better to do, Iíve decided to get some exercise by writing a few book reviews now and again. Thanks for putting up with me.]
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Ah, the mighty James Joyce Ė literary improviser extraordinaire. I picked up A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after much internalized deliberation. I had six bucks in my pocket, and two choices: appease my growling stomach (being a starving college kid can be painful at times), or appease my thirst for good writing. I went with the latter, though I did gnaw on the book cover on the way home. I was expecting a fairly tough read, some fragmented stream-of-consciousness writing, and an injection of Irish culture. I got all of this, and more.
The main character is Stephen Dedalus, a boy growing up in Ireland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Born into a Catholic family, sent to numerous Catholic schools, befriended by other Catholic students, it was apparent right from the novelís start that religion was going to play a decisive role in the story. I started to worry, fearing that Joyce would use Portrait as his own personal Christian infomercial. But my apprehension soon subsided when Joyceís protagonist betrayed his Catholic morals and indulged in a nubile prostitute. Oh, the humanity! What followed was the boyís spiral downward.
The novel is, of course, written in stream-of-consciousness fashion, meaning that the conventional rules of fiction donít quite apply. Run-ons, incoherent sentences, disjointed dialogue: these are all commonplace in Portrait. While the action may be hazy and more than a little hard to understand, it provides an extremely personal exploration into the mind and heart of its protagonist, and, consequently, his internal struggles between his urges and his morality.
Stephenís faith is tested time and time again as he fights to balance his religion with his adolescent desires. In a religious retreat, he sits through a series of lectures on hell and sin, leaving him consumed by shame and guilt over his sinful ways. He vows to live a life of piety and devotion, denying in himself any and all secular desires. His devotion is soon noticed by the director of his school, who approaches Stephen with an offer to join the cloth. After battling with himself (and seeing a beautiful young lady on a beach), Stephen experiences an epiphany. In a flurry of emotion, he refuses to feel shame for his appreciation for love and beauty, and turns the director down.
Though the novel became quite tedious and, at times, seemed very pretentious, the last ten or so pages brought the whole story together magnificently. In a series of diary entries, the reader learns that Stephen remains true to himself and his promise to live life to the fullest. If Joyceís protagonist seems almost too real, itís because Portrait is his most autobiographical work. The angst and epiphany that Stephen experiences was also experienced by the author himself. The end result is a novel applauded for its powerful emotions and its uninhibited humanity. For those interested in a light read or a straightforward story, then this is certainly not the book for you. If, however, you feel the need to do a little soul searching of your own and could use some company, pick up Portrait. Times may get tough, but in the end you will be glad you stuck it out.
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen... there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."
From his Last Will & Testament, Marquis de Sade