"It is a curious thing, do you know, [...] how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve."
James Joyce, one of the biggest literary legends. Author of a book that I started reading twice and yet never finished (I'll let you guess the title of that one). Exiled himself from Ireland for virtually all of his adult life, yet never seemingly wrote anything not taking place on the Emerald Isle. Growing up in a highly religious setting of Catholic boarding schools he turns into a non-believer, yet remains obsessed with religious topics all his life.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a reflection of Joyce's literary alter ego's, Stephen Dedalus, youth and upbringing. His family life is dominated by a father driven to alcohol, critical of the Church and its lack of support for Irish nationalism while his aunt and mother are devout catholics. Dedalus himself is taught by Jesuits with the hope that he has developed a vocation to enter the order. The protagonist is a young man grappling with his life, his studies, women, his relation to his faith and to the church.
I had two kind of difficulties with the book. Firstly, my knowledge of Irish nationalist politics is, well, limited. I simply did not understand some of Joyce's references, nor did I care to involve myself into this topic more deeply. Secondly, Dedalus' dominating preoccupation in the latter half of the novel is clearly his faith (or lack thereof, or his sinning in any case). I found it difficult to immerse myself into page-long treatises on the eternal consequences of sin. Theological discussion is simply not something to get me riled up.
Yet, please don't get me wrong. This is a great book and Joyce a wonderful author whose sentences evoke a Faulknerian beauty. Highly recommendable.