My second Joyce, after Ulyssess some six months prior. This novel is a vastly more direct and comprehensible text, benefiting from a clarity of presentation that allows intense absorption in psychology. It’s a highly effective novel on multiple levels, excelling at showing an unconventional proccess of transition into adulthood and through it a biting analysis of society, modernity, religion and art. It works to the way it shows the protagonist with deep intimacy and emotional acuteness, but yet refuses to grant him any easy outs or transcendence. His status as a future artist doesn’t bring him enlightenment or greater intrinsic natural worth, and it doesn’t free him from the nusances and challenges of the society he inhabits. It’s a very intense account, never more so than when it engages with the protagonist’s struggle with his religion, his sexuality and their intersection. There’s an intricate and gorgeously vivid presentation of what the tenets of traditional Catholicism feel like to someone who believes in them yet doesn’t live up to their moral code. His absorption with intellect as well as sex, and the tortured guilt he derives from the later, make for a perspective that is so convincing it’s hard not to assume strong autobiographical motifs. It’s a level of intimacy combined with quality of writing that often feel more real than reality, and that turn a very sophisticated eye on questions of faith, politics and the modern world. The debates on Irish nationalism are particularly intense, and are of a specific content that I feel the need for more historical conext before I can really situate the literary incorporation here. The novel gives a strong sense of the basic appeal and tensions inherent in the desire for an autonomous society, in that respect functioning very similarly to the whole spirituality/sensuality axis, generalized to a more collective level. It’s indisputably potent stuff.
And yet the book in the end suffers by comparison with Ulysses, not having anywhere near that volume’s power or raw, disorienting literary expertise. It’s still a wonderful novel however, and points up the great things that can be done with well crafted writing.
Worse than: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Better than: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy