Posted by : Halima Khait Monday, November 23, 2015


Okay, I'll admit it, I had never heard of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man until I listened to Talib Kweli's Memories Live

"It kinda make me think of way back when
I was the portrait of the artist as a young man
All them teenage dreams of rapping
Writing rhymes on napkins
Was really visualization making this here actually happen
It's like something come through me
That truly just consume me
Speaking through the voices of the spirits speaking to me"

I related to feeling something higher than myself speaking through me and me having to run to find anything I could use to write the message down. So, if that was the definition of an artist, I wanted to read more about others' similar experiences. And after 15 some years, I finally got around to doing that. In my defense, my 'To Read' list is ridiculously long.

Because of the amount of time it took me to get to this book AND the fact that it's considered a classic, I want to give it a glowing review. I really do. But I can't. And maybe I need to accept that the classics are just not for me, but I still feel the need to see what all the hype is about for each of them. *Kanye Shrug*

Where do I start? I loved the depth Joyce gave the main character Stephen Dedalus. What I mean is, he portrayed him as sensitive to the world around him, a deep thinker and someone struggling to find his way in the world before really coming into his own and standing up for his own belief system.

Let me provide a recap of the story so my last statement makes sense: It begins with Dedalus as a young boy who doesn't come from the best background, but who has the opportunity to attend Catholic school. He's a people pleaser and spends his time practically walking around on eggshells in an attempt to ease things such as the discomfort his peers feel about his curious last name or the disbelief the head of his school has about him actually breaking his glasses. He grows from that insecure boy into a young teen whose lack of response to a young, female peer's interest drives him to regularly seek the company of prostitutes. Catholic guilt from that response spins him into a complete 180 and he becomes so devote in his religion, the heads of his school pull him aside and ask him to consider a life as a priest. At this point, he develops his own philosophical theories which he not only freely expounds upon with his friends, but which also convince him to leave his hometown and all its ideals so he can find his own way in life.

So, although areas are exaggerated, I think most artistically inclined people can relate to Dedalus' journey.

What I didn't like was Joyce seemed to be using Dedalus to push his own philosophical agenda a little too hard. It became unbelievable that a young adult would have all these extensive theories and that they were all he and his friends talked about. I'm in my 30s and my friends and I don't even have conversations with the depth these kids were reaching.

Also, probably my biggest problem with this novel was I felt like I was in the mind of an artist. I know that sounds strange, but bear with me. While I was on the writing retreat, one of the underlying themes that kept reaching me was, write so your reader doesn't have to piece together what you're thinking. Because all artists know that our thoughts can be random and scary at times, but it's our responsibility to bring some sort of order to them before sharing.  And as writers, it's easy for us to craft things that sound good, but may not have any real meaning or are so convoluted, the reader gets tired before finishing sorting thoughts out. I felt some of the former and a lot of the latter with this novel. As a result, I ended up skimming through much of it.

For me, the sign of a good book is if it can make me slow down and digest every sentence; when a sentence makes me smile, re-read it multiple times, pull out my pen and underline it. I didn't have any moments like this with A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man.




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