Thick handles swirling by

I’m rereading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because my brain deletes all critical data on some mysterious schedule. So I just had the great pleasure of remembering (again) that the first chapter is a collection of sensory impressions that alter as Stephen matures. Meaning: as his brain changes neurologically from a baby’s to a older child’s.

Dean used to read aloud to me a John Updike short story called “Wife-wooing” from the collection Pigeon Feathers, and somewhere is a sentence about the two-year-old baby that goes, “Language is to him thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can.” Joyce opens Portrait with Stephen at (I’m guessing) a slightly older two than Updike’s toddler, caring intensely what words mean, and remembering them.

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

I love how that first paragraph is singsong, like a parent’s voice. The second has a marvelous lurching quality, like a toddler’s gait or attention span. And it’s so much more interesting to guess Stephen’s age from concrete details than to be told it outright. Joyce gives us a song fragment followed by Stephen’s phonetic (mis)pronunciation, and also this:

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother puts on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

Quickly the memories lengthen from clauses to paragraphs, from memory fragments into complex scenes. Sentences begin to take poetic flight. Language deepens. That stuttering-lurching quality, in which Stephen’s baby-brain stumbles from one impression to the next, falls away. By the end of a 43-page chapter we have a 10-page scene packed with political allusions and adult complexities (observed and reported by a child, or from a POV that is part Stephen-child, part Joyce) that takes place during a single Christmas dinner.

Back to the beginning, however. Just one page in, Joyce leaps from the moocow to this:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery…

Joyce doles out adjectives conscientiously, to give a flash of color, or a shot of movement, or discomfiture. (And note that lovely repetition of “weak,” no accident.)

But no amount of rereading or parsing can help me understand exactly how Joyce takes Stephen from toddlerhood to Clongowes, his boarding school—a period of maybe three years, I’m guessing—in less than a page and a half. And it’s not just the three years. In that short space he tells us rhymes and a song of Stephen’s childhood and his Ireland, shows us Stephen’s mother playing a hornpipe on the piano so the little boy can dance; introduces Uncle Charles and Dante (Stephen’s aunt), makes it clear that Irish Republican politics were fiercely felt and discussed, and that the neighbors had a little girl whom Stephen planned to marry (a statement his mother and Dante make him apologize for)—we’re immersed in that house and its music and talk.

And every line conveys not only concrete sensory information but has abstract implications. If Mrs. Dedalus simply changes the bed when Stephen wets it, she must be kind; if he is made to apologize for the marriage statement, perhaps the neighbors are Protestant; if the family can afford a piano, they aren’t poor yet. (Their furniture will soon be carted off, and in Ulysses, Stephen’s younger siblings sell his books in order to eat.)

One and a half pages.

Talk about not needing to move people in and out of rooms!

Much gratitude to friends who sent good wishes and fabulous poems for my mom. We are back in hospital (I like it the British way) and managing to laugh a lot.

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