Of priests and ‘phonies’
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Catcher in the Rye” are soulmates of creation, I’m thinking.
As I ground through James Joyce’s most approachable great work recently, I kept thinking about J.D. Salinger’s landmark, even though it’s been years now since I last read it.
The authors had more things in common than living an Atlantic Ocean and different eras apart might suggest.
Both are studies in exile themselves ” Joyce from his stifling native Ireland, Salinger hiding out from America in some backwoods New England bastion.
Both saw these works published first as magazine serials before they became books.
Both have been banned in the more uptight regions of the United States, which of course can only drive up curiosity. We love controversy, and being told what we cannot read or do. Especially here, the bleeding edge of democracy, taboos are made to be shattered. We’re a better people for it, ultimately.
But, of course, their real tie lies in the main characters coming of age in environments they find stifling, and in communities that can’t help but find them … different.
Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and Salinger’s Holden Caufield are kin, no question. Off-the-charts bright and buying nothing of convention, each is on his own path. What makes the books work is that path is familiar to so many of us, if not nearly articulated so artfully as in these stories.
My mood was the same reading each book. I guess that’s what stirred the comparison, starting as this vague deja vu while reading “The Artist.” I have this image of sitting on a surfboard, bobbing in huge gray swells on a gray smoke and cold morning off the northern California coast. A storm is gathering out there, or playing out, I don’t remember which. It’s still raining. There’s a roar from the beach. Things are unsettled. I’m anticipating, and not knowing whether fear or confidence will win out in the next set to come. It’s frightening. It’s exciting. I’m fully alive, precisely because I’m on a wild fringe, dripping wet. Out there.
There’s nothing really in either book that would call up the vision directly. In one story, a boy reaching toward manhood wanders the streets of Dublin and deals with a lot of priests and fellow schoolkids. In the other, pretty much the same kid is wandering New York after getting kicked out of boarding school and dealing with his own set of “phonies.” Joyce’s character clambers about the shore in one scene, but that’s about it as far as ties to the sea.
The lead characters in both books are contradictory, very human, often the epitome of what they decry in others. The flawed protagonist is the most powerful figure in literature, even more so than a really good villain. That is, a villain who has just enough humanity to break your heart.
“The Artist” is hailed for Joyce’s then-experimental “stream of consciousness” technique, which shows up in “The Artist” and leads to the ever more famously unreadable works that made his name: “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake.”
I don’t know that I’ll read more Joyce, though I’m glad for the exposure to him finally. Can’t really read more Salinger, since he stopped writing with his classic.
And why is it that so many of the “important” novels are such a drudge to read? I suppose it’s that my intellect leaves me among the masses who gravitate first to plot, then to novelty and scene.
Plot ain’t what makes these two books important, that’s for sure. The plot in each is little more than a vehicle ” mainly pedestrian ” to take you through time and put characters together for “great thoughts” conversations.
Comprehend enough of the subtleties ” more likely accidents of writing than planned ” and there’s further reward. That would explain the endless introductions to these books by English professors ” critics who find way more in a work than the poor author ever did, guaranteed.
Which of course is what I’m doing here. Hey, it’s fun.
Joyce was dead a decade before “Catcher in the Rye” came out as a book. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Salinger read Joyce, though. William Faulkner, America’s most Joycean author though he never left home, was said to be powerfully influenced by Joyce. Probably because Joyce made it OK to be nearly incomprehensible, the absolute bane of journalistic writing.
And Salinger’s sentences are much too clear to take much stylistically from Joyce. They shared a muse, certainly, and I slipped off to the same vision reading each of these books, about a decade apart.
Soon enough I’ll forget the characters, what passes for plot, even the core philosophies they engage in as the real purpose for these classics.
But I’ll have the gray, rumpled, huge swells, the roar, the salt tang and the feeling wildly alive at a fringe, cold and wet and not caring about that, only what the next set will bring.
All that intellect poured into these books and I’m left with a vision of the sea and consciousness. And grateful for it, too.