Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s remarkable novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–remarkable because few novels in English (perhaps none) combine so much intellectual and spiritual rage with so much lyrical beauty in so brief a space. To this day, the novel remains to my mind the finest example of what can be done with the English language in both sound and sense (Robert Penn Warren’s American novel All The King’s Men runs an honorable second to it), and I would point you back to the post I wrote on Bloomsday of this year for some considered thoughts about it.
Publication of it came when Joyce was 34, an age wherein the artist is neither blissfully young nor cynically old, and poised nearly at the Christologically significant age of 33, having knowledge of both good and evil and willing to weigh both upon the writer’s scales, no matter what it may cost him to do so. Joyce looks back unafraid upon his youth, letting us see the scars of insult and feel the pain of rejection, but he also lets us sense his absolute delight in the beauty of the world itself, whether it’s a blade of grass or the form of a woman. There’s a freshness, an earnestness, and an honesty in Portrait of the Artist that Joyce never quite achieves again despite the epic scope and the linguistic wonders of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in the years ahead. I’ve always suspected that Joyce didn’t want to recapture the honesty of his earlier work. The effort to reveal the structure of our conscious minds and the uncontrollable, subterranean river of our unconscious thought in his later works was enough for him, and both projects gave him ample opportunity to yield to his cynicism about human nature.
I am, therefore, immensely glad for the existence of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Without it, our picture of one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists would be tragically incomplete. With it, however, we can gain a great sense of all that it is possible to achieve with the written English word. Not since Shakespeare, in fact, has there been a writer who has so consciously, so fully plumbed the depths of our language, showing us by turns how beautiful it is, how funny it is, how powerful it can be in just a few words, and, in the end, how breathtakingly grand a gift it is to all of us.