A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

Modernist novels that I love and hate

A Conversation Between Two Modernists

I’ve been reading a handful of modernist novels lately. In fact, I picked this as the theme for the book discussion that I hosted for our book club last month. Currently, I’m reading some palate cleansers to resume my modernist streak. But I want to go back soon. It’s evident with my choice of topic for today’s Writing 101 challenge.

Write a post based on the contrast between two things — whether people, objects, emotions, places, or something else.

Bringing together two different things — from the abstract and the inanimate to the living and breathing — creates a natural source of tension, and conflict drives writing forward. It makes your reader want to continue to the next sentence, to the next page. So, focus on your two starkly different siblings, or your competing love for tacos and macarons, or whether thoughts are more powerful than words, or…you get the idea.

Today’s twist: write your post in the form of a dialogue. You can create a strong opposition between the two speakers — a lovers’ quarrel or a fierce political debate, for example. Or you could aim to highlight the difference in tone and style between the two different speakers — your call!

Disclaimer: This challenge is no attempt to capture the personalities of the great writers I picked who are going to have an imaginary conversation. They are merely representatives of my feelings for their works, at least the ones that I’ve read. There are bound to be misrepresentations here, so I suggest not to cite this post as a reference for anything.

Knut Hamsun: I’m Knut Hamsun, one of the early literary modernists. I’m the author of Hunger and our host blogger loves this novel. I say he’s a great intellectual.

James Joyce: I’m James Joyce, one of the high literary modernists. I’m the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and our host blogger hates this novel. I say he’s a dumb bore.

KH: Had you sustained the tone of your novel as it were in the early chapters, perhaps he would have at least been okay with it.

JJ: I really couldn’t care less for the common readers. My novels are meant for academicians. An I.T. major who has forgotten how to write a single line of code has nothing to do with this.

KH: That’s a little condescending for someone who’s supposed to have written a coming-of-age novel.

JJ: You don’t really expect me to write a YA novel, do you?

KH: I see where you are coming from. As it is, I feel that I have a more harrowing subject matter.

JJ: Now that is condescending.

KH: Themes of self-preservation and transcendence have been recurring in all of literature. And yet readers are intimidated by them.

JJ: I like that you chose hunger as a means for transcending, but seriously? An unreliable mad man? That’s very predictable.

KH: He is not merely mad. He is a man who can live comfortably if he wants to. But he didn’t. Now that is contrast.

JJ: That’s not contrast, that is stereotyping.

KH: And what about your Dedalus? It seems to me that his issues are non-issues.

JJ: Here you go talking about transcendence, and dismissing religious and artistic crises as non-issues at the same time.

KH: You have to admit that it has to do with how you wrote it.

JJ: We both wrote it using stream of consciousness, although yours sounded more like an interior monologue.

KH: Yours sounded like it was patches of scenes collated from various sources.

JJ: Which is exactly the point of psychological novels dealing with metamorphosis.

KH: Which also is exactly my point. I just managed to be cohesive and not too alienating to push away the reader.

JJ: As I mentioned, I am a meant for academic readings.

KH: So are we going around in circles?

JJ: No, unless you want to discuss Finnegans Wake. So why are we here again?

KH: Our host blogger is listening to us. Do you think he will still read you?

JJ: He attempted to buddy read Ulysses. But he failed. Ha! And you?

KH: He has also read Mysteries and he seems keen to read Growth of the Soil.

JJ: I’m pretty sure he’s going to pick up Ulysses again so that he can piss himself off.

KH: I don’t know why you have to be so difficult with everyone. No wonder you didn’t win the Nobel.

JJ: And here’s a Nobel laureate who sympathized with the Nazis.

KH: Didn’t you?

JJ: Don’t ask me. I just drank and drank.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Before Ulysses, there was a portrait – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

There was an occasion when one of my commenters pointed out that I haven’t finished Ulysses yet when I claimed to have finished all the books that I list on my monthly reading plans. A keen observer, I should say, for yes, the book completely slipped off my mind when I made that claim.

I went ahead to explain that I still do read Ulysses, but only during the weekends. But when these weekends come, I find myself procrastinating, especially if I am in the midst of a book that I am enjoying so much. Why stop reading and replace the entertainment with tedious labor?

Before I read Ulysses, I already have my prejudices dead set against it although there’s still a flicker of hope that I could somehow appreciate it. These prejudices have been formed when I read his other slimmer work, A Portrait. It is somehow a prequel to Ulysses for one of its main characters is the former’s hero, Stephen Dedalus.

–You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.–

This is Stephen Dedalus. He is someone that has the qualities of the character that I would like: an outsider, introspective, strong liking for literature, a nonconformist, and has a passionate longing to pursue his interests regardless if he is alone or not. I actually like the first third of the novel, but somewhere, I got lost. Or more likely, I got very impatient and annoyed.

It has to do with the narrative. I used to say to my friends, particularly to one friend whom, I think, is spiting me by giving this book a completely opposite rating, that this has one of the clumsiest narratives that I’ve ever read. Is it even about the stream of consciousness technique? It could be, but why was I able to follow the more incoherent and inattentive thoughts of the child Stephen than the maturing one?

Although I still managed to at least get through the last few pages mentally unscathed, I decided that I don’t like this novel at all. Finishing it felt like watching the opening of a film, falling asleep, and then waking up to catch the ending. I could never like a movie that makes me fall asleep, unless I lacked sleep prior to watching it, because I would only fall asleep if the movie failed to engage in me in some sort of mental conversation, or provide me some vicarious thrill and suspense, or at least make me hum okaaay.

I hold the same principle for books. It is quite pretentious to like something that I fear I did not really understand. So let’s get to it: what is this novel about? To answer that, I will just say the themes that I got from it, for I think that is the most effective way to answer such a question. First, there’s religion. We see Stephen grow in a Catholic family, and then he starts going out to brothels, and then he reforms, and then he stops believing and caring for the teachings of the Catholic Church. Stephen’s religion is a cycle, a metamorphosis of four stages.

Second, alienation. Of sorts. We see Stephen’s internal struggle caused by his way of thinking. He thinks differently from everyone else. He doesn’t like most of his nationalist classmates and feels that their sentiments are not as deep as his. He also feels some resentment for his family; the squalor that ate through them makes him helpless, which only strengthens his desire to leave them. It does not necessarily follow, but what can we do? Stephen is different like that.

And third, the artist thing. Well, kind of. After all, I was expecting more of this because of the novel’s title. So yes, he is willing to pay the price to pursue his dreams. He will forsake his family and friends, he will leave his country, he will sacrifice his religion just so he could become a writer, an artist. Which brings us to a debatable point: is it necessary for an artist to commit self-exile? Is this a means to escape the contrariness of the things surrounding him, or is it a struggle for artistic independence?

1 star - didn't like itSo there. I think I got enough out of the novel. It’s just that I value style, and I don’t like the Joycean School of Narrative. I experienced the Faulknerian and Woolfian Schools, so I was surprised myself when I realized that with every page, I was getting exasperated with the narration.

Joyce is not my kind of writer, which is somehow sad because he is a literary giant. One bookish friend even pointed out who am I to diss Joyce. I did not respond to that because I got a little sore, because this friend ultimately pointed out that I had no right to air an opinion. It will ultimately go to that point, even if takes a lot of meanderings to drive to it.

On the other hand, I think I am taking a bold move here by saying that Joyce is not The Writer. The Modern Library panelists may have hailed one of his novels as the greatest novel of this century. I do not agree. I am also a reader and I have as much right as anyone to diss a work or an author that made my reading an irritable occasion.

Best of 2011

The Best And The Worst Reads Of 2011

Again, I am taking a break from the weekly book write-up to sort of honor the best books that I have read this year.

There are already a lot of book blogs with similar posts, and I am tempted to pattern my best and worst list from some. I chose not to because I know I would never finish this post. So what I did is that I thought of a pseudo-award for each book included in my list.

Let me just state for the record that 2011 is the most voracious reading year in my life. Ever. Hurrah! That’s 52 books, if you want to know, which is more or less one book a week. I hope to do an encore next year. Or even beat this record.

Below is the list of books that I gave five stars, in alphabetical order. They are 12, so I might as well call them The 12 Books of 2011. Titles with an asterisk (*) are books that are in my Top 5. Without further ado here they are.

Atonement by Ian McEwan (Best Movie Tie-In) – I have a different experience with this book because when my friend and I were ranting about it, he inadvertently told me the structure of the novel. That is a major spoiler, and I almost killed him for it. But when I think about it, I think it made me love the novel more. Cecilia’s “Come back” haunts me every time I think of this novel. Spoilers aren’t so bad after all.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Best Young Adult Novel. Okay, this is not really YA, but since the protagonist is twelve years old…) – Okay, call me a rabid fan. I admit it. I might have given this five stars just because I am a fan, but let me just say that it really, really deserves the rating that I gave it. This is what I would call a literary young adult novel. It is nostalgic and subtly heartbreaking. And if you want to have a brand new copy of this book, keep tracking this blog. I am brewing something.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder* (Best Graphic Novel. Well, my edition has beautiful illustrations.) – Short but heart-wrenching. Poignant and unforgettable. The characters have all something to say. Their loneliness is recognizable. And why did that bridge fall? Is it an architectural problem? Or is it the weight of the people’s hearts? I even bought an extra copy so that I could shove it to other people’s faces and make them read it.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell* (Best New Author. Not necessarily new, but new is used relatively here.) – By god’s nightgown! Yes, this is a staggering literary achievement. And yes, two David Mitchell novels in a Top 12 list might send eyebrows orbiting, but really, this novel pushed the limits of the novel form. I don’t think there is nothing that Mitchell cannot do with a novel. And should I still mention that I am more than excited to watch the upcoming film adaptation?

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Best Drama Series. Drama series translates to a looong novel.) – A literal doorstopper. Not as literary as it seems. It is a surprisingly easy read despite the breadth. Wonderfully annoying. Scarlett O’Hara will always be an unforgettable character. She will be remembered as the strong-headed woman. Never mind her scheming and devious ways. You have to give her credit for that.

The Gospel According To Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago* (Lifetime Achievement Award) – Thought-provoking, funny, bittersweet. Not for the faint of heart and for the faithless. I think this is a more intelligent version of the Robert Langdon series. But I haven’t read those, and it is not a fair comparison because Saramago is seated on a higher level. And how can I forget this line: One has to be God to enjoy so much bloodshed.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun* (Best Novel of the Year) – You saw this coming. This is my favorite read of the year. How could a late 19th century novel sound so modern? It’s because this is set to become a classic. One of the frontrunners of pantheism, this book is a wild ride that takes us to the recesses of a man’s mind who is trying to achieve transcendence through hunger. I committed myself to buying every copy that I see in Book Sale branches and give them away. I already gave a fellow blogger a copy.

Independent People by Halldor Laxness* (Best Child Actor, the poetic Little Noni) – They say it’s about coffee and sheep. Even the person who wrote the introduction said that. But aside from these two is the battle between a father swallowed by pride and a stepdaughter engulfed with contempt. And the persistence of people to defy the laws of fate and nature. And there’s Little Noni who imagines apples are red potatoes.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Best Soundtrack. Soundtrack translates to being a real lyric page-turner. Okay, I am just forcing that to make two things connect.) – A new take on black slavery. Blacks owning blacks. A race within a race. Regardless of that, this is a stunner. At the end of the book, it poses this question: are you sure you are lucid enough to know what the world is made of? And then there’s Luke, the boy who has to die just to break the chain of lies. And that little something about Luke is something that the author himself told me.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Best Screenplay. Screenplay translates to narratives, writing, passages, etc.) – A blog I am following is whining so much on how the subject of this book is not his cup of tea. Stop that already and grow up! We do not read Lolita because we have an interest in pedophile. We read it because Nabokov is a genius. He is capable of drawing sympathy from the reader and making the ageing narrator’s love for his stepdaughter probably one of the most convincing love stories ever written.

The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Best Actor, the dignified Mr. Stevens.) – After reading this, I became an official Ishiguro fan. I really felt like a dignified butler while I was reading this that it even got to the point that I was emulating Mr. Stevens. I would walk around our office with square shoulders and measured steps. And the subtlety of the narrative! It just hits you without even knowing when.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes (Best Short Film. Short film translates to single-sitting reads.) – Finally, a book that is actually published this year. I read this in one sitting as demanded by the book jacket. I’ve dilly-dallied with my rating for this, but I decided it deserves those five stars because of the narrator’s semblance to real life, which makes me further believe that we don’t own our memories. Our memories own us. And what we mistake for our memories might be just the workings of our twisted minds.

If there is a best list, it’s only fitting that there is a counterpart. And if I have a dozen books that I rated five stars this year, I only have five books that I rated one or two stars, which means I was pretty satisfied with most of the books that I read. And instead of a pseudo-award, I will make an attempt at humor by providing a title that I assume would summarize the whole novel to save others from misery.

Only two out of these five books were axed with a one star. And oh, the books that I rated with two stars do not necessarily mean that they are bad. They are relatively the worst because of the rating.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (Why You Should Not Flirt with Others When You Are Expected to Marry an Archer for a Very Long Time, 2 stars) – If this book were a color, this is the color mauve, a color trying to be either pink or purple that it ends up lost in the blandness between the two. I may have missed a lot, and how dare I diss this book, but I’d rather read a Russian or a 19th century English novel than this one.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Perform Euthanasia on a Severely Burned Man or Wait Forever for Him to Die, 2 stars) – I am surprised at myself for not liking this because this is the sort of book that I like. Or should like. Perhaps the narrative is too dreamy that it ended up not registering in my head. Like a dream. Yes it’s too dreamy, it’s about a man talking about his last days before he was burned. And a nurse who apparently likes dying burned men.

A Passage To India by E. M. Forster (The Accusations of a Sexually Deprived and Disillusioned English Woman, 2 stars) – Kiran Desai, in her The Inheritance of Loss, said something about the horror and pretense of non-Indians writing about India. Enough said. I’m sure at least one fellow blogger would back me up on this. And this fellow blogger, we both took the pain of reading this together. But still.

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce (How to Write a Novel in the First Chapter and Fill the Next Four Chapters with a Lot of Muddled Talk, Talk, Talk, 1 star) – The narrative is clumsy. The thoughts are disjointed. There isn’t really anything going on. It feels like reading the first draft of a novel. Sure, the theme of the book is overarching, but I daresay it was not delivered as it would had it been written with more skillful writing.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller (How to Write a Novel in the Last Chapter and Fill the Previous 300 Pages with Words Synonymous with the Female Sex, 1 star) – Incoherent and bordering on trash, there’s not a lot to have this whole book redeemed. There are some good parts though, but the protagonist goes out of his way to return to that bombastic language that he uses. I tried counting how many times the word cunt was used. Of course, I lost track.

There you have it! More good books to come for the coming new year!

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man – James Joyce

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man - James Joyce

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man - James Joyce

Date Started: May 29, 2011. 11 PM.

The first chapter was promising despite the shifty narrative. I even confused myself for mistaking a character named Dante for a man. Dante is a woman. Isn’t Dante too masculine a name for a woman? And after all the good impressions, everything went plummeting down on the second chapter. I no longer get it. I wonder if it could redeem itself on the third chapter.