Joyce is such a wordsmith, He’s so able, at any point, to spring off with a bound and run with words in such a way that you really have to be on your toes with this one.
At first glance, you’re reading a simple autobiographical account. But woe-betide you if you settle too comfortably into that. Joyce won’t leave you where you find yourself.
Unless you are intensely focussed (and people settled comfortably usually aren’t), you will suddenly realise that you’re now in a completely different phase of writing. You may return to look for a transition, but you’ll spend a long time doing so. Joyce includes hardly any (I hesitate to say no, but it may just be no) transitions. If you’re looking for a new chapter to introduce you to a new scene or change of pace or change of style, forget it.
What Joyce is doing here is perfect for an autobiography because it reflects exactly what it’s like to be a person. We don’t remember episodes in our lives with perfect chapter headings and conclusions. Events flow out of and into (dare I say through?) one another. There are no hard edges in life.
We’re hard pressed to be able to relate exactly where, say, a divorce begins or ends. Anyone who thinks it ends with a decree nisi needs to try it and see. Even instantaneous events like a birth or a car crash are simply the results of a chain of events you can take back as far as you like and explore in as much detail as you like.
Joyce revels in detail no more delightedly than in the central section of the book which consists of a word-by-word account of a sermon. And it’s not just any sermon: worse than the ordinary miserable sermon is the miserable Irish sermon, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic sermon (with apologies to Frank McCourt).
The intellect reigns supreme here. Unless it can be understood, to be broken down and mastered by the mind, Joyce seemingly has no time for it. And although his intellect was so vastly greater than a whole bunch of us put together, it’s not hard to grasp why it is essential for him to reject a Being that is infinitely greater than his puny understanding.
The lengthy focus on a sermon is thus essential for Joyce. He’s a wordsmith, and it is therefore the words of the Catholic church with which he has to wrestle. Mysteries like the eucharist can be tossed aside as myth, but the teachings embodied in sermons must be challenged head on.
And so the child becomes a student becomes an undergraduate becomes a heretic in the continuous flow of life. Some might criticise the focus on faith, but for someone of that generation in Ireland, faith was a force that had to be reckoned with, not just passively possessed in the same way you inherit an old painting from your nan.
But having struck out on his own, leaving family, faith and fatherland, he was thus free, if not forced, to fashion his own world of words. And, boy, didn’t he do just that?
It’s important that we hear his lament for the mother tongue of Ireland. The fact that he has no choice but to lament in a language other than his ethnic tongue is a tragedy all on its own. But the irony of him becoming one of the greatest ever authors in English has a weight of pathos I don’t think I’ve ever grasped before. It struck me that perhaps what he did with English in later works such as Finnegans Wake were a reaction to having to work in a foreign tongue and thus proactively bending English against its will and to his own, subjecting the tongue of those who had for so long subjected his own ethnicity.
There are glimpses of the later glories in Portrait, and I can’t think of a better place to start with Joyce. I’m sure that’s exactly what he intended.