Writing craft musings, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Old book, fresh phrases…

Another Irish author (The Istanbul Puzzle, Laurence O’Bryan) and an Australian poet (Dry Bones, John Holland)  recalls an old favorite.

A profound, albeit disturbing, autobiographical, coming-of-age novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man takes you inside the forming mind of a deeply impressionable person who feels words.

The audio version evokes the author’s experience particularly well. As a Jesuit education and interactions with rambunctious peers shape the wide-eyed, innocent boy and transform him into an independent, incisive, if cynical young man, you encounter the effect on his growing mind of words — one scene has the young Stephen Dedalus coming upon a group of boys crowded around a desk, in deep conspiracy. They run away and he approaches the desk where he finds the word, “fetus,” scratched into it. The juxtaposition of the boys’ reactions to the word and Stephen’s reaction, from inside Stephen’s head, shows the catalytic potential of a single word.

Of course, poets rely upon words affecting the reader in both predictable and unpredictable ways. To reiterate, do check out Dry Bones, John Holland, for a contemporary experience of word power.

And if you like the talent of the Irish and desire a thriller along the lines of The DaVinci Code (only better), check out another contemporary wordsmith, The Istanbul Puzzle, Laurence O’Bryan.

And writers, here are some fresh words and phrases noted from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, simple words, yet fresh:

 A spine of rocks…

he bent toward the lane that led to his house

a short laugh broke from his lips

Stephen’s heart had shriveled up like a flower in the desert…

… his heart folded in on itself

he ceased to clasp his hands before him

The rector paused and then, shaking his clasped hands before him, went on.

He looked at them keenly out of his dark, stern eyes.

A little wave of quiet mirth broke over the class of boys

from the rector’s grim smile

he passed from the hall… and halted before the stable

a movement of impatience escaped him

this welcome ended in a soft peal of mirthless laughter

had drawn from him a movement of impatience

The following section is interesting in how Joyce conveyed the protagonist’s inner shift, or realization, that his private experience was safe from and untouched by the boys’ teasing:


Stephen’s movement of anger had passed. He was neither flattered nor confused but simply wished the banter to end. He had scarcely resented what seemed to him at first a simple indelicacy for he knew that the adventure in his mind stood in no danger from the words and his face mirrored his rival’s false smile.

In the following excerpt, the “stroke” is from a switch (whip) against Stephen’s leg inflicted by his rival. Interesting observation… the gesture had grown more aggressive, and this fact is conveyed subtly yet effectively:

The stroke was playful, but not so lightly given as the first.