There is a particular moment in the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which I have always loved. Stephen is in class, studying geography and looks inside his textbook to see a list he’d written some point before:
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Next to this is a joke written by a friend, which turns this list into a snappy, silly rhyme.
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace,
And heaven my expectation
Stephen, still sitting in class, reads these lines backwards and makes the observation that altered in this way, they lose their poetry. And then right after, this:
Then he read the flyleaf from the bottom to the top till he came to his own name. That was he: and he read down the page again. What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but there could be a thin thin line there all round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he only could think of God.
Portrait is very much about Joyce, a narrative reconstruction of his memories which translate into his version of how he became a writer. Which is why I love that first part and that he sees how the lines, once changed, lose their poetry. A simple enough reflection but one which shows he was already thinking about the importance of arrangement with respect to language. More importantly, this thought leads him to immediately consider his place in the universe, the size and shape of things beyond and outside him. These two observations, stacked the way they are, seem such huge clues to the kind of artist Stephen will become. The questioning of one’s place, of the size of the world beyond the self, all underwritten by a focus on a kind of aesthetic harmony.
And then Stephen hits the God wall. He knows his thoughts are huge and that it’s pretty exciting, even extraordinary, to have these kinds of big thoughts. But he can’t get past the idea that only God has the right to such thinking. So he stops his big thoughts and the passage ends with his amused considerations of what God is called in other languages. This entire passage takes up less than half the page and yet so much of the novel’s theme is laid out. It’s wonderfully done.