One rainy morning, waiting at the bus stop, I'm immersed in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A gray-haired gentleman looks over my shoulder. "Oh, you're reading James Joyce," he says.
"Yes," I reply, holding a finger inside the paperback to mark my place while I show him the stained, creased cover. "I found it at the side of the road in College Park. It's a bit soggy."
"So is the weather," he responds, with a smile. "A good day for reading Joyce!"
Portrait is ponderous in places, incomprehensible in others. It's often poetic as it describes the process of intellectual growth. In Chapter 3 the protagonist daydreams over a math notebook:
The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock's; and, when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched. The vast cycle of starry life bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine stardust fell through space.
The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the bale-fire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.
Joyce conveys the depths of Catholic faith in Portrait via lovely and terrifyingly graphic sermons. He also depicts the joys of philosophy, most strikingly in Chapter 5 during a sometimes-rowdy debate among students over the nature of beauty in art and nature:
— Let us take woman, said Stephen.
— Let us take her! said Lynch fervently.
— The Greek, the Turk, the Chinese, the Copt, the Hottentot, said Stephen, all admire a different type of female beauty. That seems to be a maze out of which we cannot escape. I see, however, two ways out. One is this hypothesis: that every physical quality admired by men in women is in direct connexion with the manifold functions of women for the propagation of the species. It may be so. The world, it seems, is drearier than even you, Lynch, imagined. For my part I dislike that way out. It leads to eugenics rather than to esthetic. It leads you out of the maze into a new gaudy lecture-room where MacCann, with one hand on The Origin of Species and the other hand on the new testament, tells you that you admired the great flanks of Venus because you felt that she would bear you burly offspring and admired her great breasts because you felt that she would give good milk to her children and yours.
... and, after an interruption, the alternative theory:
— This hypothesis, Stephen repeated, is the other way out: that, though the same object may not seem beautiful to all people, all people who admire a beautiful object find in it certain relations which satisfy and coincide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension. These relations of the sensible, visible to you through one form and to me through another, must be therefore the necessary qualities of beauty. ...
Joyce's narrator goes on to discuss those three qualities — wholeness, harmony, and radiance (after Thomas Aquinas, "integritas, consonantia, claritas") — in stylish fashion, interspersed with rude schoolboy banter. Not your usual coming-of-age novel!