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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
"Silence, exile, and cunning."- these are weapons Stephen Dedalus chooses in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And these, too, were weapons that its author, James Joyce, used against a hostile world.
Like his fictional hero, Stephen, the young Joyce felt stifled by the narrow interests, religious pressures, and political squabbles of turn-of-the-century Ireland. In 1904, when he was twenty-two, he left his family, the Roman Catholic Church, and the "dull torpor" of Dublin for the European continent to become a writer. With brief exceptions, he was to remain away from Ireland for the rest of his life.
It was a bold move for several reasons. In spite of his need to break away from constrictions on his development as a writer, Joyce had always been close to his family. He still admired the intellectual and artistic aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition that had nurtured him. And the city of Dublin was in his soul. (Asked later how long he had been away from Dublin, he answered: "Have I ever left it?")
But Joyce did achieve his literary goal in exile. The artistic climate of continental Europe encouraged experiment. With cunning (skillfulness) and hard work, Joyce developed his own literary voice. He labored for ten years on Portrait of the Artist, the fictionalized account of his youth. When it appeared in book form in 1916, twelve years after Joyce's flight from Ireland, it created a sensation. Joyce was hailed as an important new force in literature.
Portrait of the Artist is usually read as an autobiography, and many of the incidents in it come from Joyce's youth. But don't assume that he was exactly like his sober hero, Stephen Dedalus. Joyce's younger brother Stanislaus, with whom he was very close, called Portrait of the Artist "a lying autobiography and a raking satire." The book should be read as a work of art, not a documentary record. Joyce transformed autobiography into fiction by selecting, sifting, and reconstructing scenes from his own life to create a portrait of Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive and serious young boy who gradually defines himself as an artist.
Still, Joyce and Stephen have much in common. Both were indelibly marked by their upbringing in drab, proud, Catholic Dublin, a city that harbored dreams of being the capital of an independent nation but which in reality was a backwater ruled by England. Like Stephen, Joyce was the eldest son of a family that slid rapidly down the social and economic ladder. When Joyce was born in 1882, the family was still comfortably off. But its income dwindled fast after Joyce's sociable, witty, hard-drinking father, John Stanislaus, lost his political job-as Stephen's father Simon loses his-after the fall of the Irish leader and promoter of independence Charles Stewart Parnell. Although the loss of the post was not directly related to Parnell's fall, Joyce's father worshipped "the uncrowned king of Ireland" and blamed his loss on anti-Parnell forces like the Roman Catholic Church. (Joyce portrays the kind of strong emotions Parnell stirred up in the Christmas dinner scene in Chapter One of Portrait of the Artist.) Like Simon Dedalus, the jobless John Stanislaus Joyce was forced to move his family frequently, often leaving rent bills unpaid.
Joyce, though, seems to have taken a more cheerful view of his family problems, and to have shown more patience with his irresponsible father, than did his fictional hero. He seems to have inherited some of his father's temperament; he could clown at times, and he laughed so readily he was called "Sunny Jim." He also inherited a tenor voice good enough to make him consider a concert career. Many believe that musical talent is responsible for Joyce's gift for language.
Joyce's father was determined that his son have the finest possible education, and though precarious family finances forced the boy to move from school to school, he received a rigorous Jesuit education. In Portrait of the Artist Joyce relives through Stephen the intellectual and emotional struggles that came with his schooling. Joyce's classmates admired the rebellious brilliance that questioned authority, but-like some bright students whom you may know-he remained an outsider, socially and intellectually.
The religious training he received in the Jesuit schools also shaped Joyce, giving him first a faith to believe in and then a weight to rebel against. Like Stephen, he was for a time devoutly religious-then found that other attractions prevailed. By age fourteen he had begun his sexual life furtively in Dublin brothels, and though he was temporarily overwhelmed with remorse after a religious retreat held at his Catholic school, he soon saw that he could not lead the life of virtuous obedience demanded of a priest. Instead, he exchanged religious devotion for devotion to writing.
As a student at University College in Dublin, Joyce studied Latin and modern languages. Although the Gaelic League and other groups were hoping to achieve Irish cultural independence from Great Britain by promoting Irish literature and language, the nonconformist Joyce spurned them. He felt closer to the less provincial trends developing in continental Europe. He memorized whole pages of Gustave Flaubert, the French pioneer of psychological realism and author of Madame Bovary, whose precision of style and observation he envied. He also admired the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who shocked the world by introducing previously forbidden subjects like venereal disease and immorality among "respectable" citizens in his works. Both these writers drew, as Joyce would, on all parts of life-the beautiful, the sordid, and the commonplace.
But realism wasn't the only influence on the young Joyce. The subtle and suggestive poetic imagery of French poets like Stephane Mallarme and Arthur Rimbaud, who used symbols to convey shades of meaning, appealed to his love for the musicality of words and for the power of words to evoke unexpected psychological associations. Their example, too, is followed in Portrait of the Artist.
Before Joyce had left the university he had already written several essays-one of them on Ibsen-and he had formulated the core of his own theory of art, a theory similar to Stephen's in Chapter Five. The renowned Irish poet William Butler Yeats was impressed by the unkempt but precocious youth, and tried to draw Joyce into the ranks of Irish intellectuals. But once again the arrogant newcomer rejected his homeland, choosing to stay aloof because he felt Yeats and his group viewed the Irish past too romantically and viewed its present with too much nationalism.
Instead, at the age of twenty, Joyce did what Stephen Dedalus is about to do at the novel's end, and turned away from his family, his country, and his church. He ran off to the continent. In 1903 he returned to Ireland to visit his dying mother, but soon after her death (1904) he was again bound for Europe, accompanied by the chambermaid with whom he had fallen in love, Nora Barnacle. The uneducated, sensual Nora seemed an unlikely mate for Joyce, but she proved (despite Joyce's cranky suspicions of her) to be a loyal, lifetime companion.
In Trieste (then a cosmopolitan city of Austria-Hungary), Joyce wrote incessantly and eked out a living teaching English. He put together Dubliners, a group of stories based on brief experiences he called "epiphanies." For Joyce, who believed in "the significance of trivial things," an epiphany was a moment of spiritual revelation sparked by a seemingly insignificant detail. A chance word, a particular gesture or situation could suddenly reveal a significant truth about an entire life.