Monday, January 25, 2010

Book 5: A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

As a kid I could never get this title right. And getting it right meant that my dad would lean down and dispense a quarter from his slender fingers.

We all had to recite Irish authors and titles of their works in order to get our allowance. Clean our rooms? Nope. Take out the trash? Nope. Do the dishes? Nope. I was a terrible roommate upon moving out of my parents house because the only real task I was given was learning that James Joyce wrote 'Ulysses', 'A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man', and 'The Dubliners'.

The one that gave me the most trouble however was 'Finnegan's Wake'. And I don't mean trouble reading it because I have yet to tackle that mountain of gobbledygook. No. I would desperately try to remember the three names I needed to remember and I would invariably blurt out, 'Gilligan's Wake'!

My sister Sheila wrote a gorgeous essay about this ritual which was published in 'The Swanee Review', a venerated quarterly literary journal. My father was extremely proud of her, as we all were.

Now, 'A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man' I have read. And read again. I believe it is three times now and I'm certain that I shall read it again. It is an astonishing read now but if you take a second to place yourselves in the time in which it was published it becomes almost unimaginably good. Because the tone of this narrative literally pre-figures the way that storytelling itself would change over the course of the century. We are now in the age of the Memoir but James Joyce wrote the Grandmother of All Memoirs in 1916.

And it isn't even a memoir.

We are along for the transformation of our narrator from a young child to a man on the verge of adulthood. As usual with Joyce, what happens isn't as important as the words he uses to describe what's happening. I found myself re-reading passages over and over again, not because some critical piece of information was contained therein but simply because I couldn't quite believe that he'd managed to combine words in that particular order, like watching a YouTube video of a LeBron James improvised slam dunk over and over. You understand what is happening and are still fully awed.

The catalog of James Joyce lingered on the fringes of my peripheral vision for much of my own childhood. If I had to, I could lead you to the Joyce books on my father's bookshelves even if you'd never been to my house before. I could lead a blind man to 'The Dubliners' with step counts and turning instructions.

He is our Shakespeare. I'm sure at the time Shakespeare was living there were those who preferred other playwrights. Many Salieri fans wondered what everyone saw in Mozart. But time passed and the world grew up and Shakespeare and Mozart were left standing. Joyce is with them.

As is the cast of Gilligan's Island. Especially that Ginger.

No comments: