Dear A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:
I’ve always known that I have a bit of a strange reading taste. By strange, I mean that I generally enjoy a lot of books that most people don’t. William Faulkner’s novels are a good example of this–they are wordy and sprawling and confusing and mostly don’t have much by way of plot, but they fascinate me all the same. Sticking with this theme, I figured I’d feel a similar way about James Joyce’s novels. When I was at Oxford I randomly attended a few lectures on James Joyce–specifically about you and your infamous companion, Ulysses–and the lecturer made you sound so interesting and brimming with food for thought. You sounded like a book that many students dreaded being assigned–and one that I would love.
Unfortunately…I think I’m going to have to hop on the bandwagon for this one.
After seeing you collect dust on my shelves for years, I finally got around to reading you. My plan was to read you, Ulysses, and Dubliners all in a row. It’s been over a month since I finished you, and I still haven’t picked up Ulysses.
Let me preface my criticism by saying that I completely understand where that Oxford lecturer was coming from when she sang your praises to a hall of students. When taught alongside a bit of historical and literary context, I can see how you could be a really thought-provoking read. In fact, I really enjoyed reading the little scholarly introduction about you that’s at the beginning of the Penguin Classics editions. For these reasons, I wanted to like you so, so much.
But you just weren’t enjoyable to read.
I think the main reason is that you’re not really a novel you can pick up cold without doing some background research first–at least, not unless you’ve been taught Irish history. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about this subject, as we aren’t really taught anything about Irish history in American schools. You are steeped in the religious, political, and cultural conflicts of Ireland during your time, and it felt like so much of you went right over my head because I wasn’t familiar with your historical context.
Likewise, you’re also a deeply philosophical book, one that relies largely on allusions to other texts and particular on references to religion. As someone who isn’t a religious person, I found myself constantly flipping to the notes in the back of this edition, trying to make sense of your intertextuality. In a class, this would have been fascinating; however, in my bed at night after listening to online law school lectures all day in the middle of a pandemic, not so much.
And then there’s the fact that you’re quite a sad, dark novel overall. What made you even more sad was your ending–you just sort of unraveled at a point when there was one beacon of light amidst your dense writing. You left me feeling sad, confused, and a bit disappointed, to be honest.
I think I may have genuinely enjoyed reading you had it been in a classroom setting where a professor could guide us along and provide some much-needed context. Do I think that Joyce is a good writer, all in all? Yes. Will I eventually read Ulysses? Also yes. I think I just need some time–and maybe a little history lesson while I’m at it.
Thanks anyways, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.