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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce This book is a very dry, written version of the Dead Poet’s Society without Robin Williams. I was already grateful to Whoopi Goldberg this week for her reasonable comments about the most recent Sarah Palin ridiculousness, so I feel kind of bitter at having to be grateful for the other half of that daring duo. I had sworn them as my nemeses – minor nemeses, yes, of nowhere near the caliber of Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch, or Harold Bloom, but nemeses nonetheless. Now, I find myself thinking, “It’s a good thing Whoopi is on the View. Otherwise it might turn into some kind of evil vortex,” and “It’s a good thing that Robin Williams was in Dead Poet’s Society, otherwise those kids all would have been running around having conversations like I’m reading right now.” What type of conversations am I referring to, you ask? Here is an example from when Stephen is, I believe, supposed to be around 12 years old:

“-- And who is the best poet, Heron? asked Boland.

“-- Lord Tennyson, of course, answered Heron.

“-- O, yes, Lord Tennyson, said Nash. We have all his poetry at home in a book.

“At this Stephen forgot the silent vows he had been making and burst out:

“-- Tennyson a poet! Why, he's only a rhymester!

“-- O, get out! said Heron. Everyone knows that Tennyson is the greatest poet.

“-- And who do you think is the greatest poet? asked Boland, nudging his neighbour.

“-- Byron, of course, answered Stephen.

“Heron gave the lead and all three joined in a scornful laugh.

“-- What are you laughing at? asked Stephen.

“-- You, said Heron. Byron the greatest poet! He's only a poet for uneducated people.

“-- He must be a fine poet! said Boland.

“-- You may keep your mouth shut, said Stephen, turning on him boldly. All you know about poetry is what you wrote up on the slates in the yard and were going to be sent to the loft for.

“Boland, in fact, was said to have written on the slates in the yard a couplet about a classmate of his who often rode home from the college on a pony:

“As Tyson was riding into Jerusalem
He fell and hurt his Alec Kafoozelum.

“This thrust put the two lieutenants to silence but Heron went on:

“-- In any case Byron was a heretic and immoral too.

“-- I don't care what he was, cried Stephen hotly.

“-- You don't care whether he was a heretic or not? said Nash.

“-- What do you know about it? shouted Stephen. You never read a line of anything in your life except a trans, or Boland either.

“-- I know that Byron was a bad man, said Boland.

“-- Here, catch hold of this heretic, Heron called out. In a moment Stephen was a prisoner.

“-- Tate made you buck up the other day, Heron went on, about the heresy in your essay.

“-- I'll tell him tomorrow, said Boland.

“-- Will you? said Stephen. You'd be afraid to open your lips.

“-- Afraid?

“-- Ay. Afraid of your life.

“-- Behave yourself! cried Heron, cutting at Stephen's legs with his cane.

“It was the signal for their onset. Nash pinioned his arms behind while Boland seized a long cabbage stump which was lying in the gutter. Struggling and kicking under the cuts of the cane and the blows of the knotty stump Stephen was borne back against a barbed wire fence.

“-- Admit that Byron was no good.

“-- No.

“-- Admit.

“-- No.

“-- Admit.

“-- No. No.

“At last after a fury of plunges he wrenched himself free. His tormentors set off towards Jones's Road, laughing and jeering at him, while he, half blinded with tears, stumbled on, clenching his fists madly and sobbing.”


Who are these kids? The Grand Inquisitor? I don’t know, maybe the boys in the Dead Poets Society were having conversations like that, even with their fun-lovin’ teacher. It’s been years since I saw it. I really wish Robin Williams had come and slapped Stephen Dedalus around for a little while somewhere in this book, though. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a perfect example of how I instinctively dislike people who aren’t funny. And if you tell me that he actually is funny, I say to you that if it takes you longer than 1 minute to explain the joke and at the end of explanation it leaves me with only a vague uneasy feeling, it doesn’t count. The following passage comes closest to being funny of any passage in the book (but still, yawn! Also, note to Joyce, “tundish” is not that interesting a word – Wikipedia, usually so long-winded, barely gives it a page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tundish ):

“-- One difficulty, said Stephen, in esthetic discussion is to know whether words are being used according to the literary tradition or according to the tradition of the marketplace. I remember a sentence of Newman's in which he says of the Blessed Virgin that she was detained in the full company of the saints. The use of the word in the marketplace is quite different. I hope I am not detaining you.

“-- Not in the least, said the dean politely.

“-- No, no, said Stephen, smiling, I mean --

“-- Yes, yes; I see, said the dean quickly, I quite catch the point: detain.

“He thrust forward his under jaw and uttered a dry short cough.

“-- To return to the lamp, he said, the feeding of it is also a nice problem. You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.

“-- What funnel? asked Stephen.

“-- The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.

“-- That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

“-- What is a tundish?

“-- That. The funnel.

“-- Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.

“-- It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.

“-- A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.”


I kind of want to see Holden Caulfield and Stephen Dedalus cage fight, or at least hear Holden talk for a little while about what a phony good ol’ Dedalus is.

I did not hate this book as much as I thought I would, to be quite honest. A lot of readers that I have great respect for have told me this book is completely unbearable, and Virginia Woolf is so persuasively critical of Joyce in her Writer’s Diary. I don’t know about unbearable. It has mostly unbearable parts, but a couple of bearable boogey-man Catholic Church parts. I can handle the dramatic conversion chapter, but mostly Stephen is such a pipsqueak!

This book fails to be transcendent in my opinion. By that I mean that I believe it does try to be timeless – and fails. I know the counterargument is that it is documenting a specific time and culture. I get that. So are The Iliad, Macbeth, and Pride and Prejudice, though, and they are still fun or tragic and reflective of some basic humanity. Things happen in them. A Portrait of the Artist…, if it is reflective of anything, is reflective of self-absorbed young men, and that is a culture I find it impossible to be patient with. Sorry guys! I want to “accidentally” spill things on your record collections and replace your hair gel with Nair. I think we should go our separate ways.

Goodreaders, I do not forbid you from reading this book, as it is unquestionably influential, but I do warn you that if you are bothered by the use of the word “moocow” in the first sentence, you may not like the rest. Also, don’t listen to the audio version. The reader is a slow-talking, simpery-voiced, Joycian. I’m sure he’s a veryniceperson, and I apologize if I have been scathing. So that you are not left with the impression that I “hate everything”, which I have been criticized for in the past, and to end on a positive note, I leave you with a summary of the things mentioned in this review that I love: Tennyson, Byron, lamp, Virginia Woolf, Holden Caulfield, The Iliad, Macbeth, and Pride and Prejudice. Things I love also include, but are not limited to, baby animals, ice cream, Dr. Seuss, and the Velvet Underground, if you want to know.