A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

[This is a journal in five sections, matching the five chapters of the novel. I didn’t start reading a new chapter until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end]

16 March 2016
Chapter 1
Three main sections, three separate episodes from the childhood of Stephen Dedalus. Not that it’s as simple as that. Before the first main section begins we get an evocation of the world of the infant, and language to match: ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow….’ Simple words, simple sensations of the heat and cold of a wet bed, the ‘queer smell’ of the replacement blanket. Later, as he hides guiltily under the table, there’s something both sing-song and sinister about the little rhyme sung by a woman called Dante: ‘Pull out his eyes, / Apologise, / Apologise, / Pull out his eyes.’

Then, after only a page and a half, we’re away into a new and alien world. The boy we learn to know as Stephen Dedalus (after half a page of ‘he’) has only very recently begun his first term at a boarding school. He can hardly believe what his parents have done to him, counts off the days until Christmas with a nightly ritual of changing the number at his desk, and finds what refuge he can in the jargon of the place. ‘Rody Kickham was a decent fellow but Nasty Roche was a stink.’ How long has he been there? (There are 76 days of the term left at the end of the section.) How old is he? About seven? His naïve trust in the ‘masters’ and the hierarchies of the other boys are all he has, alongside the routines he clings on to. This is Clongowes in County Kildare, the same Jesuit school that Joyce attended, and it seems to be run on an English model. The teams in Stephen’s class are ‘York’ and ‘Lancaster’, as though Ireland has no history of its own. Part of the model is its competitive nature. Stephen is proud always to come first or second in his class, and is mortified when York doesn’t win an off-the-cuff little test. The staff have their own hierarchies, like those in a seminary.

And any boundaries between rules of school life and the rules of Ireland’s Catholic religion are blurred. Will he have time to say his prayers – ‘God bless my father and my mother…’ – before the lights go out and he won’t have to risk going to Hell? This time – we are being taken through a single day and a night of Stephen’s school life – he makes it. In bed it’s cold, then warm, so at least physical sensations are familiar. And he thinks of Christmas. The description of the end-of-term farewells and the journey home are so vivid that we, as readers, don’t know whether the story really has been fast-forwarded eleven weeks. Neither, we suppose, does Stephen – until suddenly it’s morning and time to get up.

Except he can’t really get up. He’s ill, apparently having caught a chill after having been routinely shouldered into a flooded ditch the previous day. His dazed journey to the infirmary and the talkative boy already in the other bed there become another set of events he has to accept. But at the end of this section… what? He seems to have drifted into a dream, one in which Brother Michael from the school is looking out to sea and bewailing the death of Parnell. And Stephen imagines Dante, she of the ‘Pull out his eyes’ rhyme, in maroon and green, ‘walking proudly and silently by the people who walked by the water’s edge. Earlier, he had remembered her maroon and green-backed hairbrushes, and even non-Irish readers know there’s something deeply sectarian going on here…. Parnell’s death must have occurred when Joyce himself was about eight or nine years old – Stephen seems to be his alter-ego – and Irish Nationalist feeling remained strong between then and 1916, when this novel was published. File that way for later.

Although not much later. The second main section all takes place during a Christmas dinner in Stephen’s family home. I assume it must be Christmas at the end of the same term because Parnell is still the main subject. Dante, the most fiercely Catholic of all the adults, feels she has to fight it out with Stephen’s father, who never takes anything seriously enough for her taste, and his friend Casey. And the old subjects – the ones that seem familiar to any reader of Dubliners and Ulysses – are trotted out. And ‘on this day of all days in the year,’ as Mrs Dedalus complains, not that her objections achieve anything. Dante is happy to accept the Church’s line, preached from the pulpit (I think), that Parnell’s adultery had been proof of his unfitness to lead. For the others, it is no more than the Church, as ever, toadying up to the British because the status quo suits them perfectly well. Dante, Stephen knows, has removed the maroon cover of one of her hairbrushes, retaining the green of the other. (The only other opposition of colours we’ve seen is the white and red of the Yorkist and Lancastrians at Clongowes. We’re supposed to make the comparison: it has to be Joyce being quietly satirical.)

Stephen doesn’t understand any of it. This is the first time he has sat with the adults at Christmas – his younger siblings will have to wait until they’re old enough – and his mind is as full of words and questions as it always is. Almost in the same moment that he thinks of his father having paid a guinea for the turkey, a huge amount, he is wondering why one of the teachers at Clongowes calls his ‘pandybat’ a turkey. I’m guessing that Joyce wants to draw our attention to how fluid children’s minds are. Stephen’s skitters back to facts like the price of the bird or familiar territory like school.

This is happening in the early 1890s, and what a non-historian takes away from the argument is how entrenched the arguments can quickly become. For Dante, priests are almost as infallible as the Pope, so they must be listened to. For Casey, they are little more than the puppets of a foreign power. And the conversation is as gossipy and localised as any that take place in Dubliners. Casey tells a story of a bigoted old woman haranguing him and using a word about Kitty O’Shea (the woman in the Parnell scandal) that he won’t repeat in polite company. As she rants, his mouth is full of tobacco juice, and he holds back. And then he doesn’t, spitting straight in her eye. Is the story true? How should Stephen know? And he wonders about the word that Casey won’t repeat. A slippery thing, language, when you’re new to it.

In the final section, more time has moved on. It’s cricket season, but the talk of the school is a terrible misdemeanour perpetrated by several of the boys. Two of them are to be publicly ‘flogged’, while others have a choice between this or expulsion. Most are choosing the latter. Stephen, more isolated than ever following the smashing of his glasses by a careless cyclist on the cinder path – the geography of the place is as established in the narrative as everything else – speculates on what crime they could have committed. Have they taken one of the objects from the chapel – or even drunk the communion wine? (Stephen, like most Catholics, considers these literally sacrosanct.) He has heard of such crimes… but they boy telling them about it says no, they were caught off school grounds, ‘smugging’. Stephen has no more idea of what this is than the reader but, unlike us, can’t begin to guess.

So, mysteries. And there’s another to come. Stephen is excused close reading and writing until a new pair of glasses is sent from home. Fine. But the ‘prefect of studies’, an ignorant bully, seizes on his idleness. The boys later decide, probably rightly, that the ‘smugging’ incident has made the staff edgy, and this prefect feels he can do what he likes under a more punitive regime. He canes Stephen, once on each hand, and the page-long description is a tour de force. We get the physicality of it, the injustice, the sensitivity of this little boy who, when the man touches his outstretched hand, takes it for a friendly gesture. But as bad as the pain and injustice is the confusion. How can a member of staff say what is so clearly not true? How can he describe the breaking of the glasses as a ‘trick’ he knows all about?

It’s too much for him. The tears, the swelling of hands that he begins to feel sorry for as though they aren’t his…. Some of the boys, probably expecting him to be too frightened to do it, urge him to go to see the head of the school. And he does. This man, the Rector, listens with sympathy and tells him the prefect won’t be coming to give him the same punishment next day. Who would have thought it? Not the boys who, no doubt for the first time in his life, treat Stephen as a hero. In the distance, as he has throughout this section, he can hear the ‘pick, pack, pock, puck’ of the cricket bats. There’s something comforting about the familiar sound of it, ‘like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.’ Which is how the chapter ends.

19 March
Chapter 2
Time passes. How much time? Long enough for the pre-pubertal boy of the early scenes to grow into the sexually driven young man at the end who, finally, finds himself following a prostitute to her room. Some things that seemed important in Chapter 1 now certainly don’t, and Stephen is hoping to find a new – what? – assurance of his own value. But he isn’t really sure about anything, even by the time he has won an ‘exhibition and assay prize’ to help finance his studies. And some things don’t change as much as you might expect.

A description like that doesn’t convey anythingof the way this novel works on the reader. Sometimes, however different Chapter 2 might feel, things are noticeable that I now realise were present in Chapter 1. There’s that easy slide from what we might think of as a conventional narrative mode into something else entirely. Stream of consciousness? Not quite… even though, for sentences at a time, that’s definitely what it is. I’d noticed this in Chapter 1 when we are first at the school in Clongowes. The first ten-line paragraph goes from ‘The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys’ to ‘Rody Kickham was not like that he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said.’ Reading that last line, we know this is now the unpunctuated consciousness of a short-sighted boy feeling ‘small and weak.’ With variations, that’s where we stay for that first school section. Other people do things and say things, all the time, but from now on it’s presented from wherever it is that this boy is perceiving it.

So, despite those opening sentences, any semblance of a conventional narrator seems illusory. Chapter 2 begins like this: ‘Uncle Charles smoked such black twist that at last his nephew suggested to him to enjoy his morning smoke in a little outhouse at the end of the garden.’ We vaguely remember Uncle Charles from the Christmas episode in Chapter 1. The tone now is jaunty enough for it not to seem out of place in, say the Strand magazine of the era. And I’m guessing that that’s the point. Charles and his nephew – that’s Stephen’s father, Simon – are comfortable in the middle-class world where nephews ‘suggest’ to uncles where they might like to smoke their filthy pipes. Some of Bloom’s scenes in Ulysses are written like this – he’s another of those men that you get in Joyce who isn’t as comfortable as he makes out in this milieu – and the tone is hiding something.

What it’s hiding in the early parts of this chapter is Simon’s steady financial decline. At first, everything in Stephen’s life has its set pattern. We see it during this particular summer in Blackrock, their comfortable suburb at the edge of Dublin. Charles does his errands for Simon then, as usual, he and Stephen meet Mike Flynn, a washed-up sports coach who teaches Stephen a preposterous-sounding style of running. Then it’s the chapel where, already, Stephen is aware of not sharing his great-uncle’s ‘piety’. But in September, Stephen isn’t going back to Clongowes, and other things are different now: ‘those changes in what he had deemed unchangeable were so many slight shocks to his boyish conception of the world.’ This is a knowing narrator’s voice, but more usually we’re in Stephen’s head as one thing follows another. Some of the furniture is sold, then they are forced to move, with Mrs Dedalus weeping and Simon muttering about his ‘enemies’, into a cheaper house nearer the centre of the city.

Through an old contact – the Jesuit Father Doyle – Simon manages to get Stephen a place at a good day-school. And suddenly, when a new sub-section opens, he has only a year left to go. As usual, the main action takes place inside Stephen’s head. And the rest of him: the world impinges on various other parts of the body of a bright boy making his uncomfortable way through adolescence. There’s the rough feeling of a collar on his neck, I remember. And there are urgent sexual feelings, never referred to directly in those terms, that turn into one of this chapter’s most persistent threads.

Like so much else, this had started early. At Blackrock it hadn’t been sexual, but a kind of juvenile yearning for something only read about it books. Specifically, he fantasises about Mercedes in The Count of Monte Cristo – and, this early in his development, the fantasy only gets as far as the heroic self-denial that follows her rejection of him. There had been girl at a party, Eileen, and he would have loved to speak to her. But he leaves after his performance of a song, and his re-casting of the incident sets the pattern of him aggrandising whatever he does. When he and another boy become the leaders of a gang of pirates and marauders its main function, as far as Stephen is concerned, seems to be to let him indulge in delusions of leadership. He models himself on what he has read about Napoleon.

He never stops taking himself this seriously, even when his literary heroes have moved on to being the great Romantic poets (not the later Tennyson, a mere ‘rhymester’ in the arrogant view of the late adolescent). As a boy, the fighting – not that he did any – was with wooden swords. Now he does battle with his ‘rival’, Heron, with words. Stephen, at least, is looking for the tone of a witty literary skirmish from the 18th Century. And he’s done well at school by the time he’s one of the older boys, gaining a reputation not for poetry – we are never shown his juvenile efforts, as though he, or somebody, is keen to draw a veil – but as an essayist. And he has gained, perhaps unexpectedly, another reputation. His talent for mimicry has got him a part in the school performance that forms the background to this section. He’s waiting around and then, disturbed or angered by a younger boy dressed for the part of a pretty girl, he makes ‘a gesture of impatience’ and leaves.

He doesn’t get far. Heron is with a new friend, and they have one of those bantering battles that he’s becoming tired of. It isn’t about literature, like a time Stephen remembers when, basically, Heron and his cronies beat him up for disagreeing with them. (This is still very much a boys’ world.) Joyce does strange things with time in this section, as in this flashback. How long ago was it? Heron has teasingly mentioned a girl who has arrived with Stephen’s father…. Is she really the one he met at a party two years earlier, before he failed to make a connection with her and found solace in writing a poem? He wouldn’t do that now. But what does he do? He performs his part in the play, while the girl is in the audience, and… nothing. Afterwards, outside, he sees the familiar figures of all his family but not, presumably, her. He goes for one of his nocturnal walks, passing reminders of life (the smell of horse-piss and straw) and death (the Morgue). Tough time, adolescence.

But Joyce has made it into an extraordinary evening. The bright ‘ark’ of the school’s theatre, trying to break away from its ‘moorings’ of strings of lights is also a gymnasium. Stephen, short-sighted and bookish student that he is, is the secretary, so he has a connection with the muscular activities that make up the first half of the show. The juxtaposition of the great symbols of body and mind, in a section in which both of them obsess Stephen in equal measure, is – what? A metaphor to place alongside all the others.

A new section: the visit to Cork. It’s supposedly for business, not pleasure – Stephen has joined his father to oversee the auction of property – and the reminders of mortality are there as well. Simon talks to barmen and hotel porters about Cork people he used to know, but the porters mean the sons of those Simon is thinking of, a lot of whom are dead. (The death of Uncle Charles is mentioned along the way, too.) Simon visits old haunts with Stephen – maybe remembering childhood experiences runs in the family – and one of them is an anatomy theatre. Reminders of the physical realities of life are ever-present, and Stephen discovers a word carved into a desk: ‘foetus’. He imagines the young man carving it, surrounded by friends – the artist’s creative imagination at work? – while he is also appalled at his own reaction. It chimes uncomfortably with the almost constant ‘riot’ of shameful thoughts he has. ‘He had soon given into them and allowed to sweep across and abase his intellect, wondering always where they came from, from what den of monstrous images….’

His father is also going through a bad time. He is drinking far too much, and Stephen detects a ‘sob’ in his voice as he tries to hold himself up as the ‘gentleman’ he always tried to be. But to Stephen this, and his father’s increasingly unpredictable attitude to him, becomes more and more disorientating: ‘wearied and dejected by his father’s voice… he repeated slowly to himself: “I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father Simon Dedalus. We are in Cork, in Ireland….”’ It’s a reminder of the way when, in Clongowes all those years ago, he tried to establish his location in ‘Ireland, the World, the Universe.’

Another new section, and more time has passed. He has won the essay prize, collects the money… and tries to use it in order to reconnect with his family. Sometimes this clever young man seems clueless. ‘He bought presents for everyone, overhauled his room, made resolutions….’ In other words, he is fooled by the money into thinking it can solve his problems. I’m guessing that Joyce wants us to realise long before he does that he’s an idiot. The prize money is finite – we are told the amount, in pounds, at the very start – so his spree was always going to be short-lived. And, sure enough, ‘the season of pleasure came to an end.’ And his project of reintegration with his family is a failure: ‘He saw clearly … his own isolation…. He felt that he was hardly of the one blood with them… fosterchild and fosterbrother.’

What’s an adolescent to do, especially one with ‘fierce longings in his heart’? This is one of many euphemisms for the sexual urges that he seems to be as unable to control as his spending. Despite his drift away from the Catholic faith – that lack of ‘piety’ we saw earlier, his willingness to satirise the Confiteor in a bantering exchange – he knows he is in mortal sin. But ‘beside the savage desire within him to realise the enormities which he brooded on nothing was sacred….’ There are nearly two pages of this stuff, and I’m assuming that Joyce has taken us into the purple realms of pastiche again, as the overblown language matches Stephen’s inflated sense of his own wickedness. Then, on one of the nocturnal wanderings he’s taken up again, a prostitute approaches him with ‘his heart clamouring against his bosom in a tumult.’ And at last, after he has been standing there unable to do anything, she shows him how. ‘Between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of –’ of what? Sin, obviously.

24 March
Chapter 3
I first read this novel when I was only a year or two older than Stephen is now, sixteen, and I’ve remembered the descriptions of hell in this chapter ever since. But this time I’m not reading it as I did then. Now I read it as another pastiche, a satire on the keen-minded theologians who come up with bloodcurdling evocations of an eternity of pain to impress people who aren’t as clever as they are. The boys attending the ‘retreat’ are such a congregation – and, crucially, Stephen is firmly presented as one of them. There’s no doubt at all that when the re-booting of his Catholic faith happens, it’s because he’s ready for it – he sits on a bench at the front, as though keen to absorb everything that the priest says. We’re constantly being reminded that in spite of his precocious sexual experiences, Stephen is only a boy. And he’s already full of self-loathing.

The first few pages of the chapter set it up. After the dusk has ‘come tumbling clownishly after its dull day’ – is this Stephen’s thought? – he thinks about his supper. Or his stomach does – ‘Stuff it into you, his belly counselled him’ – but his thoughts are with the ‘whores.’ He imagines them and their calls to his ‘sin-living soul’ and… and he’s there, being urged on by them. Then without a break, he’s a schoolboy again, in a classroom, unable to concentrate on anything but the way ‘by each succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment.’ And so on, and on, with his revulsion for every sight and smell stirring nothing but contempt for every other boy in the room. He isn’t in a good place.

And then comes the announcement of the retreat, which is where the real business of the chapter takes place. There’s another dusk, transformed by the priest, whose ‘dark eyes kindled it into a tawny glow.’ These little echoes and transformations run through this early part of the chapter. The ‘grease-strewn plates’ and the ‘thick scum’ in his mouth become his soul, ‘fattening and congealing into a gross grease.’ Joyce does it all by the book, or the priest does, because the next day brings ‘death and judgment, stirring his soul from its listless despair.’ These are the first two of the ‘four last things’ of Catholic eschatology, the others being hell and heaven. We, and the boys, have already been prepared for what this is about: ‘Remember only thy last things and thou shalt not sin forever,’ the priest says at the beginning of this new section. And the next 28 pages take Stephen, and the reader, through the horrors that face any living person who has not thought about the last things. It isn’t a good idea to die a sinner.

What do I need to say? Death and judgment don’t take long in the narrator’s re-telling of it, but by the end of the day Stephen has been softened up: ‘Every word of it was for him. Against his sin, foul and secret, the whole wrath of God was aimed.’ For Stephen, it’s always personal. And the next day is hell. Shrewdly aware of his audience, the priest starts with the physical. It’s his words we read verbatim now, and what he says is horrible. Every possible physical discomfort is there, from the damned being so ‘utterly bound … they are unable to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.’ There’s fire, of course, but no ordinary fire. ‘Every sense of the flesh is tortured, and every faculty of the soul therewith.’ And, worse, it burns in darkness. This was the only one of the plagues in Egypt, he reminds the boys (and us) to be called horrible. ‘What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?’

We’re getting the picture, and he hasn’t even started on what exactly is meant by eternity. Earlier in the chapter Stephen was in a maths lesson, and in the next day’s sermon the priest teaches the boys that however much arithmetic you throw at it, you’ll never truly understand eternity. He has a mountain of sand-grains diminishing by a single grain each million years. When it’s all gone (and come back, and gone again innumerable times) ‘eternity,’ as the priest likes to repeat, ‘would scarcely have begun.’ This appealed to my seventeen-year-old self all those years ago, and it appeals to Stephen now.

And so does the chopped logic of the sadistic pleasure the priest seems to derive from it. His traumatically distressing presentation of hell – and I haven’t even mentioned the ‘spiritual’ tortures he lists with relish – is all justified because the sinners have brought this punishment on themselves. Sin is the one thing, the only thing, that God is unable to forgive. It only seems like disproportionate punishment to us mere mortals – I’m paraphrasing – because we don’t understand that to God, every sin is composed of ‘hideous malice’ and ‘foulness’. The damned will finally learn this, too late, and it’s ‘the deepest and most cruel sting.’ Any repentance in hell is useless. This version of God is a divine Father Dolan, but this time there will be no recourse to a second opinion. (No, seriously. I’m genuinely wondering if Joyce makes such a big thing of the injustice of that punishment in Chapter 1 so that we could think about it now.)

I could go on. The priest certainly does go on, and Joyce, speaking through him, is pitch-perfect. By the end of the days of sermons – how many? Three? – Stephen’s tongue is ‘cleaving to his palate’ to the extent that he can only pray with his heart. That palate again. It’s all about the body, which is confirmed when he gets home. ‘He felt only an ache of soul and body, his whole being, will, understanding, flesh, benumbed and weary.’ (I love that ‘flesh’ inserted there.) All this is ‘the work of devils, to scatter his thoughts and over-cloud his conscience….’ He’s truly thinking like a Catholic now. When he closes his eyes in a kind of agony, all he sees is a barren landscape of weeds and ‘creatures… soft language issuing from their lips, their long swishing tails besmeared with shite….’ It’s a scene from Hieronymus Bosch. He feels the stench is ‘clogging and revolting his entrails,’ and he makes it to the washstand just quickly enough to vomit in agony.

The rest of the chapter can only go in one direction. He is convinced that he will die before he can repent, but… next day he finds a church and, after going through more agonies, he makes a rather bland-sounding confession. ‘With women, my child? Yes, father.’ The priest, to give him his due, seems genuinely shocked. He makes Stephen make a ‘solemn promise’ to give up the wicked sin and, as he has to, absolves him. Long before the end of the chapter – there are only two pages left anyway – he feels reborn. ‘Another life! A life of grace and virtue and happiness!’ And this is ‘not a dream from which he would wake.’ But you don’t have to be asleep to dream, and this is a James Joyce novel. A lot is likely to happen in the hundred pages that are left.

31 March
Chapter 4
It doesn’t take a hundred pages, it takes about fifteen. That’s when, after preening himself over being asked to consider whether he has a vocation for the priesthood – tell you later – he decides that no, he ‘would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as priest.’ In fact, his move away from the devout persona he invented for himself after the retreat begins much earlier. Less than two pages in, he finds himself questioning the logic of separating his daily prayers in the prescribed way. Luckily ‘he believed that at some future stage of his spiritual progress this difficulty would be removed.’ Believe that if you want to. The first sub-section of the chapter, only six pages long, is already full of hints of self-doubt, and it ends with self-examination and questions. ‘Perhaps that first hasty confession wrung from him by the fear of hell had not been good? … But the surest sign … was, he knew, the amendment of his life. – I have amended my life, have I not? he asked himself.’ That’s how the sub-section ends, and it isn’t a question asked by someone who’s sure of the answer.

The set-piece encounter with the ‘director’ straight after this, the one in which the question of his vocation is raised, begins almost comically. Earlier in the novel Stephens’s father has commented on how well dressed Jesuits always tend to be, and the director’s opening chat is all to do with clothes. He mocks the Capuchins and their dress, and Stephen makes polite, non-committal answers. But when, as Stephen knew it would, the talk comes round to the big question of his future, he is ready for it. ‘I have sometimes thought of it,’ he says. Of course he has. The priest’s words remind me – I’m guessing that they are supposed to – of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. ‘No king or emperor on earth has the power of the priest of God….’ And, following a paragraph in which the p-word appears half a dozen times more, he ends with an exclamation: ‘What an awful power, Stephen!’

It’s a crucial moment. ‘A flame began to flutter on Stephen’s cheek as he heard in this proud address an echo of his own proud musings.’ It’s Joyce’s clearest signal yet that we – and Stephen himself – were right to have those suspicions concerning his sincerity. (And file away that word ‘flame’ for later.) The conversation doesn’t end there, as Joyce lets us inside the mind of a young man digging deep into his own motives. He realises that the image he has of himself as a celebrant is childish, ‘as in the pictures of the mass in his child’s massbook, in a church without worshippers’ (my italics). And the deeper he digs, in that way Joyce has of letting us understand that Stephen’s self-examination goes far beyond what most young men in his position would achieve, we already know the likely outcome.

He leaves the room, promising to pray for guidance… and his mind fills with thoughts of the figure he will cut if he succumbs to the priest’s persuasion. Which of his former teachers will he be like? Then, in a paragraph of its own: ‘The Reverend Stephen Dedalus, S.J.’ The future leaps into uncomfortable corporeality – the corporeality that has never stopped being a permanent fixture in his sense of himself – and there, before his eyes, is ‘the mental spectre of the face of one of the Jesuits….’ He passes the building where the Jesuits lodge, wonders ‘vaguely’ which of the windows might be that of his own room…. But it’s no good really. He hasn’t made a final decision yet, but even before he’s got back to the ever more impoverished family home, ‘the exhortation he had listened to had already fallen into an idle, formal tale.’ Fallen, that word again. A few sentences on: ‘He would fall. He had not yet fallen, but he would fall silently, in and instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard.’ The world’s too much for him and he isn’t going to be leaving it behind.

There’s a brief scene in his house, where his parents are out. He wonders where, until one or other of his shadowy siblings tells him in a childish code – ‘Becauseboro theboro landboro lordboro willboro putboro usboro outboro’ – that they are looking for somewhere else to live so they can make another moonlight flit. What is it about codes and obscure language in Stephen’s life? Soon they are singing, a ‘choir of voices’ in which he hears a ‘recurring note of weariness and pain.’  He joins in because, I suppose, this is the world he knows and to which he will have to give utterance. (And yes, I really think it’s as schematic as this.)

Next. More time has passed, and Stephen is fretting about whether he will be able to go to university. His father is in discussion about this with Stephen’s tutor in the pub… and Stephen is almost frantic with impatience. For him the university represents the next big thing, a gateway into adulthood. ‘The university! So he had passed beyond the challenge of the sentries who had stood as guardians of his boyhood and had sought to keep him among them.’ It seems that this all the priest’s persuasive words amount to, an exhortation to stay with childish things. We’re familiar with this idea by now.

We’re in the final sub-section of the chapter, and Joyce makes it pivotal. Like another scene in a different novel, Ulysses, a character called Stephen Dedalus finds himself on the shore at the edge of the city. Perhaps that chapter (‘Proteus’, Chapter 3 in Ulysses) is a kind of wry commentary on this one. In the later novel I describe how we’re ‘inside the rattle-bag of Stephen’s head’ as he wrestles with themes that have already become almost too much for him to handle. ‘Descriptive detail of the feel of sand or shells underfoot, or the activities of an inquisitive dog pissing here and there, are collaged next to Stephen’s memories of bar-room scenes in Paris, thoughts about death – a constant theme, underlined in this chapter by the dead dog and Stephen’s musings on the drowned man whose body is expected to be swept to shore on the high tide later – thoughts of his family and where babies come from…. When he realises one of the distant figures is a woman, her bare legs and the rising tide lead to thoughts of the power of the moon including, inevitably, menstruation, childbirth and his own mother.’

That’s what I wrote about ‘Proteus’, and it’s all about a man for whom certainty about anything seems a longed-for dream. In Portrait, there’s definitely hope as he feels he’s left behind the idea of a comfortable but, for him, unthinkable life. Now, he’s discovering something new to put in its place. This novel is turning into what it perhaps has always been, a specific type of Bildungsroman, a Künstlerroman. (The first known use of that word in criticism written in English was in Harry Levin’s 1941 critical biography, James Joyce. No surprise there, then.) What Stephen discovers on the beach is a new identity, as rooted in the familiar life as anything else – a life he is part of yet feels himself rising above in his ‘mild proud sovereignty.’

It starts when familiar voices call to him, boys from his school swimming naked. At first there’s something terribly alienating about the scene: ‘The mere sight of that medley of wet nakedness chilled him to the bone.’ But it’s the voices that matter. In the way that boys do, they mock his name: ‘Stephanos! … The Dedalus!’ But it’s his inoffensive Christian name they mock – ‘Stephanoumenos! … Stephanepheros!’ – not the mythical-sounding surname that has so often caused him embarrassment in the past. And then it comes: ‘Now, as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy….’ Ten lines further on, ‘Was it … a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?’ It’s a question. There have been a lot of questions in this chapter, but this one has come from deep inside himself and, this time, he thinks he knows the answer.

The chapter isn’t over yet, and the rest of it in the copy of the novel that I read all those years ago is covered in notes I made then. What I underlined then gives a flavour: ‘His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood…. He would create proudly … as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.’ We get the idea and, unlike the boy who feels himself newly minted and having passed beyond childhood, it’s another boy we think of. What everybody now remembers about the Daedalus myth is what happened to Icarus, his son. (Maybe I’ll come back to fathers and sons later.) The repetition of those words, ‘soaring … impalpable … imperishable’ stir thoughts in the reader’s mind of that other word, repeated so often earlier in the chapter: a fall.

But not yet. Two pages from the end of this chapter comes another harbinger of his destiny. ‘A girl stood before him in midstream, gazing out to sea.’ Ah. Girls or women on the shore are a great favourite of Joyce’s. (It isn’t only in the third chapter of Ulysses where they make an important appearance.) This girl, ‘when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes’ turns to him, and… and what? Nothing happens, beyond Stephen’s total assurance of what this representative of womanhood means to him now. ‘A faint flame trembled on her cheek’ and then, as he strides away from her decisively, his own cheeks are ‘aflame.’ But this time, unlike in the director’s room, that flame is to be welcomed. ‘Her eyes had called him and his soul had leapt at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him….’

Oh dear. I’m guessing that we’re supposed to be suspicious of this iconography of external visions confirming an inner conviction. And this is the same girl who, when he first saw her, had seemed like a sea-bird, the description of her mixing similes relating to birds with the reality of a woman’s body. That fits into Stephen’s new-found creed, in which an earthly, earthy form can take on ethereal meaning through art. But it also makes me think of Icarus again. Whatever Joyce is throwing at us in this chapter – and the writing really does soar – we’re taking it with a very big pinch of salt. We know, as Stephen makes his way much later following a kind of rapturous dream of light, ‘trembling, trembling and unfolding,’ that it can’t last.

The previous chapter ended on a note of misplaced certainty and hope, and there’s a long way to go before the end of the novel. Chapter 5 is going to be the longest in the book, and the final sentence of this one contains a highly ambiguous image: ‘A rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of skyline, the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand.’ Stephen knows that he, too, needs to be embedded. But that moon isn’t doing any soaring.

10 April
Chapter 5
This starts in the squalor of Stephen’s family home and, a few lines from the end, is back with is mother getting some ‘new secondhand clothes’ ready for his departure from Ireland. But the very end, the last of a series of diary entries, is an appeal to an imagined father: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’ Who this father might be is something that the previous eighty pages have made it more ambiguous than you might think.

Along the way, what we also get in this chapter is an explanation of the image that ends Chapter 4. Then, the rim of the silver moon is ‘embedded in grey sand,’ and I suggested that it isn’t going to be doing any soaring. ‘Grey’, like so many other simple words in this novel, takes on a life of its own through repetition. The Irish sky is always grey, the literal-minded dean of studies is a ‘grey’ figure whose hair is later described as greying, the lake in the park is grey, the walls of the state-approved university, Trinity (not Stephen’s college) are grey… and so on. Joyce keeps a tight grip on words and images that recur like this. That grey lake, for example. At other times during this chapter, the fluidity of water is a powerful image of free thought and other important aspects of a young man’s awakening. But not here. How can a lake in this place be anything but a reflection of a sky that is always grey? In the latter part of the chapter, it comes as no surprise at all that Stephen isn’t going to be staying.

This ties in with a lot of other threads. Amongst the half-dozen or more named students we encounter in this chapter the first, I think, is Davin. He’s the country boy Stephen refers to as the ‘peasant’ – a word we haven’t heard since Chapter 1, when it sounds like the prejudice of the middle class boys – and who calls him ‘Stevie’, a name he likes for its homely sound. At one level it’s the stuff of ordinary university friendships… but this is a James Joyce Künstlerroman, and nothing about Stephen’s friendships is ever that simple. Davin comes to represent an Irishness that Stephen finds false, and their growing unease with one another culminates in a row. Or it culminates, as so often, in Stephen telling Davin exactly why he’s wrong. ‘No honourable and sincere man … has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell, but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.’ This is fairly typical of the way he speaks to everybody.

Threads. Ireland, still stuck in a colonial relationship with the conquerors who took away its language. The family, such a problematic topic for Stephen that he thinks about it less than any other single thing. Women, notably ‘her’, the unnamed muse who is, or is presented as being, that same girl from ten years before. The Church – don’t get him started. And, running through – or overarching, or subsuming, or elbowing out – everything else, is Art. Every aspect of literature and language, every philosophical tenet, rule for living – and, in the end, every other thread in the chapter – has to be processed in terms of its relationship to it. And, in the end, everything is sacrificed to it.

Instead of plot, there are episodes, mainly in the form of conversations, as we follow Stephen through a couple of days in his student life. After the opening pages, as he drinks his weak tea and is routinely offhand with his mother and the rest of the family, the first sub-section gets him to his college. On the way, we’re mostly inside what I always think of as the rattle-bag of his head. He’s vague about times, having to check by way of any clock he can find or the chiming of bells. He even has to check what day it is by looking at a news-stand…. Shop-signs and other bits of text float in and out of his consciousness – I’m reminded of Bloom in the early chapters of Ulysses – and meanings blur. He predicts what poets he will be thinking of during each section of his walk – mainly the Elizabethans, and I’ll come back to them – and he thinks back to the conversation with Davin that introduces him to us. He tells Stephen a story about a woman – Stephen thinks of her as a typical peasant – who offered herself to him when he knocked on her door hoping for a glass of water. Stephen’s troubling memory of it morphs into an encounter in real time with a flower-seller whose directness is too intimate for him….

He has a conversation with the dean of studies, an Englishman who, it transpires, doesn’t recognise as English a word that Stephen uses. The colonised are teaching the conquerors now, Stephen thinks – and as so often, it’s all about the words. And, of course, it’s all about Stephen positioning himself. We’ve seen him looking down on Davin, and now he’s looking down on this Jesuit who, he is sure, has never had an original thought in his life. Stephen tries out one of his latest theories, knowing that this grey man will not have anything to say in return. All Stephen feels he can do is fit the dean’s literal-minded remarks into his own pronouncements about, for instance, the nature of beauty. (I wonder if Joyce was as much of a prig. I suspect he was.)

Next. A turgid lecture, and other students. Stephen has already imagined one of the lectures he missed earlier (because he couldn’t be bothered to get up in time), in which all the other students diligently write down what they are supposed to. Now we’re in a lecture in which almost everybody else seems as bored as Stephen. The professor’s attempt at a joke is picked up and made ruder by one of the students. It’s crude, but it’s word-play, like so much else in the banter between these young men. It sets the tone for Stephen’s other encounters on this day. He is always earnest and utterly honest in everything he says but I get the feeling that nobody is anything but a sounding-board to him, somebody to whom he can explain his own carefully thought out positions.

There’s politics – there’s a petition concerning universal peace, or some such, and Stephen is as unimpressed as you’d expect. He’s with Cranly, the man who seems to be his most important friend, and they encounter others. Stephen clearly has a reputation for witty debate and, for some reason, I’m reminded of the bantering young men in Romeo and Juliet. There’s an element of showing off in most things that these young men say as a rival of his, McCann, tries to trip Stephen up. ‘A little ring of listeners closed round to hear the war of wits,’ but nothing much comes of it until Stephen mocks what he calls the ‘icon’ of the Tsar being used as a focus for the pacifists. ‘If we must have a Jesus, let us have a legitimate Jesus….’ He’s signing nothing, and another student sneers about his ‘intellectual crankery.’ It isn’t particularly easy to read, possibly because the debates are long over, and possibly because there are deep layers of intellectual snobbery running through so many things Stephen says.

It’s at this point that we first encounter a technique of Joyce’s, used at least twice in this chapter. Some fellow-student of Stephen’s will appear, usually to interrupt a conversation that is already in progress. We will be offered a description of various aspects of his appearance, voice or whatever until somebody or other addresses him by name. Only then will the narrator routinely refer to the new arrival by this name. It strikes me as a pastiche of what is, after all, a commonly used literary device – but why does Joyce use it in a novel in which the intimate thoughts of the main character are so fully on display? Why, when we know so much else about what Stephen is thinking, are we left for whole paragraphs wondering who the new character might be? I assume that it’s a deliberate alienation device, representing in some way the distance Stephen feels from all but a tiny handful of friends. So ‘a lean student with olive skin and lank black hair’ becomes the insufferable Temple. A fat young man wearing a silk neck-cloth becomes the equally insufferable Donovan. And so on.

But some of the things Stephen says have a deep resonance. Davin, unable to interest Stephen in politics, seems to fear for him: ‘You’re a terrible man, Stevie… always alone.’ File that away for later, as Stephen moves on to Lynch, and they discuss art. Most of it is Stephen going through an almost impenetrable, step-by-step definition of beauty, but we get something new: ‘We are right, he said, and the others are wrong. To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand—that is art.’

Now we’re getting to it. There’s the mind-boggling certainty – ‘the others are wrong’ – but also the compulsion to make something out of the ‘gross earth’. Then, some pages further on: ‘So far as this side of aesthetic philosophy extends, Aquinas will carry me all along the line. When we come to the phenomena of artistic conception, artistic gestation, and artistic reproduction I require a new terminology and a new personal experience.’ He can only rely so far on the teachings of one of the great Catholic thinkers. The artist needs new words and, even more crucially, that ‘new personal experience.’

We might still be over 40 pages from the end, but it’s clear where this is going. Stephen at the age of – what? Twenty? – feels that he has scrutinised everything that Irish political thought and the Church can teach him and has found them wanting. Cranly calls it ‘a curious thing … how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.’ He’s right, and Stephen seems to be stuck with it as long as he’s still in Ireland. It’s a country that is so second-rate in his view that not only is its language borrowed, so is its religion. (This last thought arrives when Stephen meets and spars with an Italian student.)

All the rest – the banter, the striving to be the boss… and the down-at-heel shoes, the tawdry rooms, the lice – are the reality out of which Stephen’s future will have to grow. But there are several matters still to be dealt with before the end.

After the long sub-section full of conversations, a new one begins as he wakes up next morning. And we see not only the workings of the artistic process but, by way of the first poem of Stephen’s that we have actually been allowed to see, recognise that he has reached a dead end. The girl he obsesses about becomes the basis of a villanelle, which we see emerging almost line by line over several pages. But it’s no good. It’s a form borrowed from Stephen’s beloved Elizabethan’s, but it’s in the nature of villanelles to remain in a kind of stasis. His poetry isn’t going anywhere, however proud he might be of its cleverness.

There are a few highly personal matters to be cleared up, relationships that have, to some extent, impinged on Stephen’s life for a long time. The girl, who he never seems to speak to, becomes the object of pointless jealousy as he sees her first ‘flirting’ with one of the priests, then going out with her brother and one of Stephen’s friends. This is finally resolved just one page from the end of the novel, in one of a series of diary entries that make up the final sub-section. ‘Met her today point blank in Grafton Street.’ He describes the conversation, and how his own awkwardness makes it difficult at first. But ‘I turned off that valve’ and, by the end, he’s ok about it. He describes her remarks as they part and writes, almost parodically, ‘Now I call that friendly, don’t you?’ The diary entry ends in a kind of rueful self-mockery: ‘O, give it up, old chap! Sleep it off!’ Too right.

There’s family. Since at least Chapter 2 they have never been any more than minor characters. We hear of his father’s financial embarrassment, the family’s decline from conventional gentility to what is presented as near-penury by the end. All he seems to have inherited from his father is his fine singing voice – Stephen’s musical ability is always there, although he doesn’t value it much – and his snobbery. Meanwhile his mother seems to have become little more than the family skivvy and the representative of unthinking religious faith. One of the last conversations Stephen has with Cranly is about Easter, and how Stephen is refusing to go along with the usual mass. This is where the line about his being ‘supersaturated’ with religion appears, but Cranly can’t persuade him. (It’s like Buck Mulligan’s taunt in the first chapter of Ulysses. In that novel, an older Stephen has recently refused to say a prayer with his dying mother. And that’s after he’s left Ireland and come back again.)

Even friendship isn’t going to survive Stephen’s new-found resolve to go alone into his new artistic life. We’ve seen the vehemence of his row about Ireland with Davin. But Cranly is his real friend, the only other student beside Stephen himself whose surname doesn’t identify him as being Irish, or any other nationality: like ‘Dedalus’, it’s an invented name. We see how, long before the end of the chapter, their relationship has become unequal. Stephen is only interested in his own opinions, and seems content to let Cranly know that nothing he says affects him. It is made completely explicit: ‘A voice spoke softly to Stephen’s lonely heart, bidding him go and telling him that his friendship was coming to an end. Yes; he would go. He could not strive against another. He knew his part.’ I can’t think of a single other novel in which a character decides to end a friendship in this way.

And we’re left with those diary entries. The first offers Stephen’s version of some of the conversations we’ve heard, beginning with ‘March 20. Long talk with Cranly on the subject of my revolt.’ Among other things, it’s a tying-up of loose ends. It’s where Stephen mentions, after his conversation with Gheezzi the Italian, that ‘his countrymen and not mine had invented what Cranly the other night called our religion.’ He mentions an argument with his mother about the ‘B.V.M.’ – is that acronym his own droll invention? – during which he rejects the idea of leaving the Church by the back door only to ‘re-enter by the skylight of repentance.’ The conversation ends with him asking her for sixpence. ‘Got threepence’ – which makes him sound as childish as ever. Early in the chapter she’d been scrubbing his neck.

The diary goes on like this for five or so pages, and a few lines from the end we get what sounds like a deliberately mocking self-aggrandisement: ‘Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ I’m assuming that this is the thirty-something author writing in the voice of a callow younger self. But then we get the final line, the one that refers to ‘Old father, old artificer.’ An earlier reference makes it clear who the ‘artificer’ is. At the end of Chapter 4, on the shore when he was maybe two or three years younger, he had already come to a decision about his own destiny: ‘He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.’ It’s taken a long time, but now he invokes that same ‘artificer’ to bless his project: ‘Stand me now and forever in good stead.’

Sorted, then? Maybe… but ‘now and forever’ comes at the end of the Lord’s Prayer – so even now, after all that, he’s as supersaturated in religion as he ever was.

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