‘This story of the young artist and the city which produced and nearly strangled him is as powerful as ever’
A new, digital version of James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ celebrates the centenary of the book’s publication
Actor Barry McGovern and his son Sam read the new audio version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. The book follows Stephen Dedalus and his wandering, artistic development, and was first published in serial form in 25 instalments. The novel is full of detailed descriptions of the Dublin of Joyce’s youth, as we follow Stephen Dedalus on his journey of intellectual, emotional and aesthetic transformation. It was subsequently released as Joyce’s first novel in New York by BW Huebsch (who also published DH Lawrence and George Sorel) on December 29th, 1916, at a time when both nationalism and modernism began to shape a new Ireland.
To mark the centenary, a new multimedia version of the novel, specially commissioned and published by the UCD School of English, Drama and Film, will be released. The full audio recording, the text as it was first published, as well as maps, rare period images and commentary on Joyce’s Dublin is now available, free of charge, from www.JoycePortrait100.com.
This digital version contains an audio version of the full novel, read by acclaimed Irish actor Barry McGovern and his son Sam McGovern. It is a collaboration between Athena Media and a team of researchers from UCD’s School of English, Drama and Film and the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, led by Prof Gerardine Meaney. The team specialises in using computational methods to examine a large collection of 19th- and early 20th-century novels. You can find out more at www.nggprojectucd.ie.
Before the Easter Rising of April 1916, the banner that hung from Liberty Hall in Dublin read: “We serve neither king nor kaiser but Ireland.” At the end of that year, in another declaration of independence, the semi-autobiographical central character of James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, adopts a personal motto: “Non serviam” – “I will not serve.” These rebellions were not unrelated, but Joyce’s was even more radical. The nationalist rebels would have approved of Stephen Dedalus’s assertion that “this race and this country and this life produced me . . . I shall express myself as I am”.
Much more problematic would be his insistence that he wished to be free not just of king or kaiser but of much of what seemed to constitute that Irish life: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” Here was a paradox that Irish culture would struggle with over the next century: to express Ireland might not be the same as serving its most cherished ideas about itself.
It was significant in itself that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published not in Dublin but in New York and, shortly afterwards, in London. It is an intensely Irish book, charting the growth from infancy to early adulthood of a would-be writer in Dublin between roughly 1882 and 1903. But although Joyce started an early version in Dublin in 1904, he was already in self-imposed exile in Trieste when he finished it, in 1914.
That Joyce’s relationship with the emerging Ireland would be a difficult one was already evident: the radical Dublin magazine Dana declined to publish an early version. It was instead serialised, at the urging of the American poet Ezra Pound, in the London avant-garde review the Egoist, during 1914 and 1915. Joyce’s modernist methods, with varying styles, fractured narrative and concern with Stephen’s inner consciousness, was more important to his champions than the book’s relationship to Ireland.
Yet Joyce was as much concerned with Irish freedom as were the young political revolutionaries who staged the Rising. In his book, the personal is political: the weakness of Stephen’s father, Simon, is inextricable from the failure of the Parnellite cause he espouses. In the penultimate sentence of A Portrait, Stephen proclaims his ambition “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”.
The book itself probes that uncreated Irish consciousness, asking what a free Irish mind might feel like. The answers include a raw, urgent sexuality and a revolt against the power of the church – not quite what most of the political rebels imagined. There was already a tension between artistic and political visions of what it meant to be a free country.
This is an excerpt from Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, published by the Royal Irish Academy, in partnership with The Irish Times (€29)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the first work of Joyce I read. I was a schoolboy at Castleknock at the time, the 1960s. It made a profound impression on me, not merely because I was a boarder at a Catholic school in Ireland, like the protagonist of the book, but mainly because of the writing itself. Joyce has always been one of my favourite authors for that very reason – the sheer quality of the writing. It has been said that he never wrote anything but masterpieces. This is not true but his four great works Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake certainly are, and are completely different in their technique and style.
I also have personal connections with Portrait (and, indeed, Joyce, having been born in Eccles Street, reared in Sandymount, lived in Sandycove and, currently, in Chapelizod). I played Stephen in Stephen D., Hugh Leonard’s adaptation of Portrait and Stephen Hero at the Abbey, which was Joe Dowling’s first production as artistic director there in 1978.
Barry McGovern is an actor
I really did not like this novel when I first read it in the school library in the 1970s. What teenage girl would not hate Stephen Dedalus? With the confidence of that generation’s youth, I dismissed the power of the nets Stephen sought to escape, of home and fatherland and church.
By the 1980s, first marching against the introduction of the eighth amendment to the Constitution and then tutoring UCD first year’s on Joyce’s novel, I had gained an appreciation of what he was up against. Pure enjoyment of the precision and power of the language came later, as well as a growing suspicion that this young man would really not have grown up to be James Joyce.
After decades of living in Dublin, the novel has come to seem like a portal into the city’s past. Joyce’s fiction haunts certain streets and views and above all the places where Dublin looks out to the sea. The schoolgirl impatience at the boy who can worship, but not speak to the girl he sees on Dollymount Strand, who “seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird” was followed by anger at the objectification of the girl herself – birdlike, magical, but not really human.
Reading it again now, I am much more struck by the loneliness of both these young people, their isolation from the world and each other as they look out from the edge of the country and of adulthood. Published in the same year as the Rising, which would bring independent Ireland into being, Portrait maps very clearly the combination of nationalist naivety, class division, religious repression and social isolation which would shape the following decades and make many young people follow Stephen on the “shortest road to Tara”, via Holyhead. A century after its publication, this story of the young artist and the city which produced and nearly strangled him is as powerful as ever.
Gerardine Meaney is professor of cultural theory at the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD
Much like its modern equivalent the selfie, there is no such thing as an innocent self-portrait. We depict ourselves in the way we want to be perceived. It’s up to the viewer to see beyond the lustre of the portrait and find the person underneath. In my first reading of Joyce’s Portrait, I failed to do this utterly. Perhaps it was the title which put me off. Reading the novel prescriptively as a teenage Trinity undergraduate, subscribed at that time to a rather reductive brand of feminism, I saw Portrait as a male novel. The young man of the title, with his noxious ego-centricity epitomised by his desire to “forge the uncreated conscience of his race” made my hackles rise.
It’s been over a decade since then, and I’ve met plenty of Stephen Dedaluses, male and female. When I recently re-read Portrait, approaching the novel on my own terms, without the pressure of having to critique it, I was surprised to find myself enraptured. Stephen’s awakening sexuality, which had so affronted my female sensibilities, now reads as universal. His “eyes opening from the darkness of desire” could speak to anyone, anywhere. The veneer of arrogance which had so repulsed me now seems laughably staged, the self-portrait cracked as an aging oil painting and the protagonist achingly vulnerable. In Stephen’s struggle with his “exultant and terrible youth”, I see not only my younger self, but many of the characters I have written. If there’s truth in the saying “the right books find you”, then perhaps it’s also true that sometimes you have to wait to be ready for them.
Roisín O’Donnell’s short stories feature in The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Her debut short story collection, Wild Quiet, is published by New Island
I read A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man as a young man. Insofar as autobiographical parallels with a fictional hero are supposed to induce an affinity with a novel, I ought to have been pretty close to an ideal reader: a socially alienated Irish male, born into a Catholicism I had come to violently reject, scornful of institutions and tradition, and believing – however deludedly – that I had a deeper aesthetic vision that would save me in the end. So far, so Dedalus.
The novel, however, left me cold, and for a few years that word, “cold”, was the one that most readily came to mind when I thought of James Joyce. It’s likely that if I went back to A Portrait now I’d have a better, if still frosty appreciation of its stylistic inventions, which didn’t have the same impact on me as, say, those of Knut Hamsun’s young-artist novel Hunger. If we’re being honest, I never cared much for Dubliners either. It was only when I got on to Ulysses, and even Finnegans Wake, which I’ve never read in anything like its entirety – though I’d love to give it a bash whenever I have a year to kill – that I realised what a stupendously renegade, subversive, ambitious, perverse and perverted talent Joyce was.
Rob Doyle’s latest novel is This Is the Ritual (Bloomsbury / Lilliput)