I first started this book about three years ago and couldn't get past the first chapter for a variety of reasons. I took a fresh stab at it earlier th...moreI first started this book about three years ago and couldn't get past the first chapter for a variety of reasons. I took a fresh stab at it earlier this week and my feelings about it are still rather mixed.
To begin with, the first chapter that I abandoned is the only one relatively free of obtuseness, perhaps because Joyce attempts to write with the simplicity of a child. I liked the wonder with which the young Stephen Dedalus sees the world - whether it's the appearance and disappearance of sound with the clapping of hands over ears, the colours of brushes and roses and shirts, the sounds of words. The honesty with which he states what he finds beautiful and why is moving - "How beautiful and sad that was! How beautiful the words were where they said Bury me in the old churchyard! A tremor passed over his body. How sad and how beautiful! He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music. The bell! The bell! Farewell! O farewell!"
There's no reason, however, why clarity and juvenile simplicity should be the same thing. In the chapters that follow, Joyce sacrifices this for more matured, philosophical prose which is nonetheless spectacularly dull. To be fair, they are well conceived, if not well-written - Stephen's frightened retreat into religion after Father Arnall's fire and brimstone speech, his epiphany on the bridge. The last chapter has plenty of thought-provoking dialogue but it's encased in a mess of Latin and name dropping pretentious enough to make a hipster blush (still, who knew poseur freshmen existed a century ago too?). It's not that Joyce's writing is not beautiful at times - I liked his lucid description of the birds at Stephen's window, in their "temple of air". I also liked, despite the occasional detour into triteness, the scene before that, describing Stephen's flash of inspiration, something that might be familiar to anyone who's woken up at three in the morning and can't go back to sleep because there are words in your head, or images and you need to transplant them onto paper now. And I did like the poetry in the last line of the book, a good ending, referencing as it does the man who tried to fly into the sun: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.
It's just that the writing is inconsistent, lost and found like a sun on the overcast days Stephen seems to have so many of. Maybe it's the writing, but I couldn't really *get* Stephen. Sure, I could relate to some of the events that help shape him as an artist but he seemed distant and vague to me. I like Davin much better, with his honest approach to both human relationships and political ideology. I couldn't sympathise with Stephen's romantic misadventures either, perhaps because they don't inspire him to much except mawkishness or flight.
I honestly loved some of the writing in this book. Apart from the ones mentioned above, I especially liked the significance of Stephen's words- "I will not serve" when contrasted with the theological issues that permeate the book (but then, I've always had a touch of sympathy for the devil). It's a pity that the sum of the book does not equal its parts.
Perhaps this is the kind of book I'll grow to appreciate when I'm older and wiser. Perhaps I merely have woefully simple tastes - and I do, I demand a straightforward honesty from books. Language should be, must be experimented with, but not at the cost of clarity. (less)