a long piece about a horny boy and an experienced woman

It’s Bloomsday.

James Joyce is a megalith on the Irish literary landscape. Yeats and him cast long shadows over Irish writers even to this day.

I doubt I’ll ever be as good a prose writer as Joyce, or as good a poet as Yeats, but I hope I’ll discover my own voice and style that will be considered genuine “McHugh” by those who read my work when I’m dead and dust.

Today I’ll start with a look at A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man’s life from boyhood to rebellious adult writer. Most people say it’s useful to examine as a half-way house between Joyce’s writing style in Dubliners and his stream-of-consciousness in Ulysses.

I would love to quote a longer hunk of this section, but we’ll have to do with two paragraphs:

The swift December dusk had come tumbling clownishly after its dull day and, as he stared through the dull square of the window of the schoolroom, he felt his belly crave for its food. He hoped there would be stew for dinner, turnips and carrots and bruised potatoes and fat mutton pieces to be ladled out in thick peppered flour-fattened sauce. Stuff it into you, his belly counselled him.

It would be a gloomy secret night. After early nightfall the yellow lamps would light up, here and there, the squalid quarter of the brothels. He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sin-loving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. Yet as he prowled in quest of that call, his senses, stultified only by his desire, would note keenly all that wounded or shamed them; his eyes, a ring of porter froth on a clothless table or a photograph of two soldiers standing to attention or a gaudy playbill; his ears, the drawling jargon of greeting:

What we see here is the beginning of Joyce’s unflinching eye when it comes to certain subject matters. The young Stephen Dedalus, raised to think even looking at a woman lustfully would damn his soul, has taken to prowling for prostitutes.

Everything in the writing contributes to the guilty pleasure, and deep-seated fear, Stephen experiences as he trawls for sex from whores. The day is overcast and dull (I love the use of the word “clownishly”), and all he thinks about is his appetite. The chapter begins with thoughts circling around pleasure–“Stuff it into you” is his stomach’s counsel. Follow your natural instincts, says Joyce.

The second paragraph sets the scene. There is no romance, or flowers, or idealised notions about sex. The area around the brothers is squalid, and even the path he takes around the area is described as “devious”. I love Joyce’s unusual word-choice. Sometimes it depresses me because of its originality. For a young man at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland to be this fascinated with sex is daring and strange. Even Stephen thinks he is damned because his “sin-loving soul” desires “their soft perfumed flesh.”

We see Joyce’s unusual punctuation in Portrait, which will become even more individual in Ulysses. Joyce eschews quotations marks, and instead uses an em-dash to mark dialogue. He uses his otherwise exquisite punctuation choice to make it clear what he means.

What Joyce reflects in his choice of writing style is that reality is not easily described in all its mutable glory using an unchanging grammar. Joyce understands the rules of sentence structure and punctuation extremely well, thus he can break them. When Stephen is struggling internally with philosophical, ethical, and societal issues the writing becomes fluid and elastic, to become like the tides of thoughts that rush in and sweep across the mind.

Here’s a section from Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy from Ulysses (though it is an unnatural thing to excise anything from that long chapter–please read it all):

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharans and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

What an amazing piece. No punctuation until that final period.

The piece gathers momentum as you read it. You tumble along with Molly’s thoughts, moving closer to climax, and that final breathy, Yes. What an uplifting and positive end to the novel. Molly is the ultimate pragmatist. She plunders life for experience, even when the rewards are few. She understands the reason for living, and seizes it. She always reminds me of the Wife of Bath, another survivor.

Writing such as this is achieved only through great effort and skill. It is not attempting to be easy, but mimetic, which considering the nature of our unruly and chaotic thoughts, is a difficult task. Anyone who thinks the trick Joyce pulled

off (successfully, in my opinion) is simple, has never attempted to write anything this complex.

It reminds me of a time when I was studying Irish playwrights in College. We were reading plays by another talented son of Ireland, Samuel Beckett.

We had just finished class, and a small group of us were discussing Beckett’s work. One of my acquaintances said, rather grandly:

“I think his work is rubbish. I could write that.” He pointed to the anorexic volume that contained one of Beckett’s play. He mistook minimalism for pretension.

I didn’t say it to him, but I immediately thought:

“If it’s so easy, then you write it!”

Simple things are usually the most complex, when you examine them.