The inexpressible is there, for the taking

I'm going back into my book world. Let me tell you, a woman with James Joyce on the brain and Marvin Gaye singing antiwar songs in her ears is a woman buried to her eyebrows in lyricism.

I can't remember, exactly, when I started on Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I know that I got halfway through it and put it down in favor of reading The Lord of the Rings.

Portrait has held the topmost spot on the bookshelf closest to the window, spine facing out, toward the living room. When I water my plants, my trek to refill my water jug takes me through the reading room to the back door of the kitchen. Every day I would pass the bookshelf, and with some degree of guilt I would see the slim paperback, waiting for me to come back to it.

Joyce's reputation of being one of the more difficult crafters of English prose is probably well-deserved, but I think I see now what I was incapable of seeing a few years ago: the purity, the aching, gem-cut purity, of his writing.

The words, the phrases, the paragraphs, slide so easily through the mind. It takes a conscious effort to stop and look at the prose the way he wrote it: a single word at a time, laboriously, by hand. To read it as it was written is to read it far more slowly than a casual reader would. To push, to force the words out in a singular stream.

It was at that moment that the beauty of what I was reading became clear to me, and I understood. You either get Joyce or you don't—it's that simple—and if you do, it's an experience that is almost impossible to explain.

From page 89, as Stephen Dedalus attempts to work through his religious (Catholic) awakening:

"The English lesson began with the hearing of the history. Royal persons, favorites, intriguers, bishops, passed like mute phantoms behind their veil of names. All had died: all had been judged. What did it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his soul? At last he had understood: and human life lay around him, a plain of peace whereon antlike men laboured in brotherhood, their dead sleeping under quiet mounds. The elbow of his companion touched him and his heart was touched: and when he spoke to answer a question of his master he heard his own voice full of the quietude of humility and contrition.

"His soul sank back deeper into depths of contrite peace, no longer able to suffer the pain of dread, and sending forth, as she sank, a faint prayer. Ah yes, he would still be spared; he would repent in his heart and be forgiven; and then those above, those in heaven, would see what he would do to make up for the past: a whole life, every hour of life. Only wait."

The inexpressible is there, for the taking, if you know where to look. I like to describe the difference between reading pop-fiction and literature-fiction as a difference in stance. Pop fiction comes to you, hands you plot and storyline and characterization, and walks away with the statement, "There it is, enjoy it on your lunch break."

Literary fiction, in its most rarefied form, can be just as difficult as the snobbery implies. It won't come to you immediately. Think of it as Edmund. Sit still, sit quiet, make your mind ready, and he may (or may not) approach you in his stealthy, quiet way until—suddenly—plop! there he is, all fourteen pounds of him in your lap, purring and making absolutely perfect sense.

It's sudden. Just like that. All or nothing. Strain your mind and the understanding never comes. Sit back, relax, and look like you're not interested, and five seconds later the cat's in your lap, wondering why you haven't been scratching him behind his ears all along.

From page 119, as Dedalus begins to understand his love of language:

"The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose."

As writers, our end purpose is to delineate (or, artfully obscure) a plot, a character, a mood that has never adequately been expressed before. I seek the same in cinema: a novel plot or situation, or a treatment of a familiar situation in a novel fashion. I'll read the newspaper or watch the evening news if I want a bowdlerized rehash.

I only wish I could do this half so well.