It would be a gloomy secret night. After early nightfall the yellow lamps would light up, here and there, the squalid quarter of the brothels. He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sin-loving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. Yet as he prowled in quest of that call, his senses, stultified only by his desire, would note keenly all that wounded or shamed them; his eyes, a ring of porter froth on a clothless table or a photograph of two soldiers standing to attention or a gaudy playbill; his ears, the drawling jargon of greeting:Ireland has changed a lot since Joyce was a lad - indeed, it's changed a lot since I was a lad. I found myself re-reading this on a recent trip which included 24 hours in Dublin, where due to having a bad back I limited myself to the space between Pearse Street and St Stephen's Green, cutting several times through Trinity which Stephen Daedalus sees as "set heavily in the city's ignorance like a dull stone set in a cumbrous ring", and mused on how on the one hand Trinity is now much better integrated with its city surroundings than it was back in Joyce's day, and how on the other Dublin has raised its intellectual and cultural game even in my lifetime, as modernity hit Ireland with a thump. I guess the turning point was somewhere in the late 1980s, with the failure of the first divorce referendum and the success of the Eighth Amendment proving in fact to be the last gasp of the old order, defeated electorally in 1990 by Mary Robinson and morally in 1992 by Bishop Casey (who of course turned out merely to be the tip of the iceberg of ecclesiastical scandal and disgrace); last year's equal marriage referendum demonstrated how far Ireland has now come.
—Hello, Bertie, any good in your mind?
—Is that you, pigeon?
—Number ten. Fresh Nelly is waiting on you.
—Good night, husband! Coming in to have a short time?
I was brought up in Catholic Belfast, my education still tinged with a lot of the dogmatic approach that Joyce experienced (though my school was run by nuns, which I think already made a difference), so A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I first read it as a teenager was a hostile mapping of a close but unfamiliar corner of my own world. (Except that there were no prostitutes in my world, as far as I knew.) Many in the post-Vatican II church attempted to get away from the rhetoric of hellfire and mortal sin, but it was always there under the surface, tied in with the practices around confession and indulgences, and buttressing social conservatism generally. The weakest bit of Portrait for me is the lengthy sermon on hell in Chapter 3, but I suppose the point is well made.
What I missed on first reading, and see now, is that Joyce is also writing about the cultural constraints of the Ireland he grew up in - largely self-imposed, rather than engineered by British rule. It's not only the constraints of dogmatic religion; it's the difficulty in thinking outside the box. Joyce seems to me to have a deep distrust of narrow Irish nationalism - the most unpleasant character in Ulysses by far is the Citizen,based on Gaelic League founder Michael Cusack; the dinner time debate about Parnell turns surprisingly nasty. A lot of his contemporaries saw the revival of Irish cultural identity as an emancipatory moment; Joyce seems to see it as a blind alley, when there is a wider more interesting world out there, which is what he eventually chooses.
And of course the writing style of the book is very engaging (apart from having too much hellfire, and not really enough about girls, though again I suppose that's part of the point). We may sometimes wonder just where the boundary between Joyce and Daedalus is, but we have a good idea of where Daedalus is coming from and why, and eventually of where he wants to go. It's also mercifully short; I don't think I will ever try the original 913-page manuscript of Stephen Hero...
This was the most popular book on my shelves that I had not already reviewed on-line. Next in that list is The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett.