I thought it would be a good idea to do this again, to read James Joyces’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But instead, I’ve gotten wrapped around the axle with the author, his conflicts with the Catholic church, and given myself a deadline to finish it today.
I let myself get emotionally attached to the book, which is dangerous, because I put unfair expectations on it. It’s inscribed with my surname before I changed it, in 1989, and this will be my fourth time reading it since then.
As a coming-of-age for Joyce, it’s my coming-of-age, too. As a freshman in college, I signed up for this 400-level class, to go deep on Joyce for a semester.
Through Joyce, I met a great teacher named Archie Loss. Through Dr. Loss, I was nominated for a job the next year at Johns Hopkins University, and it’s through that job I met my friend Miriam.
19 years later, Dawn and I drove from Germany to a small town near the Italian coast, in Tuscany, to see Miriam and her family.
We broke the drive in half, stopping at Lake Como the first day, then pushing on for several hours from Como to Orbetello. Lily was a bit more than 4 years old, and Charlotte, about to turn 2.
They rented a Tuscan farmhouse and invited us to stay, for a week. It was quiet and muggy in the late afternoon, the farm lined with fig and cypress trees, the trees full of cicadas making their clicking song, the rickety old gate kept closed, to keep the wild boar out.
They had a pool in the back, and Miriam offered us a Heineken. After hours in the car with two kids, the GPS, and the Italian road signs, I sucked the beer down and started to relax.
But Lily couldn’t swim yet and had gone head-under in the pool, as we stood there with our beers. Miriam saved her.
This is what happens with writing and reflection, when you go into the labyrinth, into the cave: you lose your orientation, can’t tell north from south, can’t find the end, can’t remember where you were going.
Stream-of-consciousness is a flow of thoughts that begins and ends somewhere; though the point of origin or exit may be unclear, you just enter and move with it.
Joyce got pissed off with his manuscript of Portrait and tried to burn it, during a fight with his wife, Nora. He couldn’t get it published and had to rewrite it in a town called Trieste, now part of Italy.
We got Lily out of the pool and calmed her down, shaking off what almost happened, thinking it was okay, we’d still have a good time this week.