62. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916)

I did this for A level English, and it was the first really ‘difficult’ book I ever read. I had a bit of a Joycean epiphany when it finally fell into place for me – the shifting narrative modes, the stream-of-consciousness passages and so on – and for a long time this was what I thought a ‘modern’ novel should be. I still like it a lot, particularly the hell-fire section in chapter three, but I also think it’s a bit of an artistic dead end. You have to be a real genius to make this level of subjectivity work for the reader (although of course it’s always marvellous fun for the writer). Joyce pulls it off here, but the books it led to – Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – are just ridiculous (please place outraged comments in the space provided). The only reason they’re so revered is because they’re completely impenetrable, and are held up as a badge of intellectual achievement. Reading should, above all, be a pleasurable experience, even if the subject matter is horrific – and I struggle to believe that anyone can honestly enjoy reading later Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist is as far as I go with him, and at my age I think I’m allowed to recognise my limitations.

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Filed under My top 100 novels

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