For two weeks, the Irish actor Andrew Scott has been taking the measure of James Joyce, and outsoaring any reading of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man yet recorded (10.45pm, weekdays). It’s so good, as the days piled up it actually felt ominous, this serene weathering of each character. It has freaked me out. So much that I’m not sure Book at Bedtime has been the right slot: this thing is too energising, too accurate, too stinging and diligent.
Take a moment in episode five, when the 16-year-old Stephen Dedalus sits in the confessional box and imagines all the sins of impurity as “shining rapiers” sliding into his flesh. On the face of it, the priest he’s speaking to isn’t explicitly cruel or damning. Instead, in Scott’s mouth, he is terrifyingly disconnected – which sounds deeply realistic and pessimistic, and precisely what Joyce wanted to say about how things felt in that priest-ridden country in 1916.
You can always tell a great piece of realist writing because you’re continually finding new things in it. Even more than usual, Portrait sounds endlessly three-dimensional, ever-changing until you know for sure that this story isn’t about this story at all, but is coming from a poet’s intelligence that isn’t satisfied until it works on three levels.
It must be a good story, an allegory, and make a political point. Specifically, Joyce rolling his eyes at the nationalist, self-conscious, Yeatsian love of Celtic mythology and the idea of Ireland’s old and mystical “destiny”. Instead, he (seems to be) repeating the mind-fucking mantra just let me get out of this dump.
“His prayers ascended to heaven from his purified heart like perfume streaming upwards from a heart of a white rose,” continued Scott, his voice flowing very simply. But it was also complicated – hard to describe (just listen to two minutes of any episode on BBC iPlayer) – so that he sounded like he was deploying the peculiar abilities of a superpowered mutant, or was actually Derren Brown. I’ve never much cared for Scott’s bells-and-whistles, “fiendishly intelligent and dark” performances in roles such as Moriarty in Sherlock on TV, but I’m now beginning to think that he might be the 21st century’s Peter Lorre.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (BBC Radio 4)
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left