Colm Toibin in The Guardian:
James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins with the confidence, ease and innocence of a story told to a child and ends with a tone that is hesitant, suspicious, fragmented and estranged. Between the two comes the education of one Stephen Dedalus, as the nets of race, religion and family attempt to ensnare his tender soul and complex imagination. Stephen is a born noticer and an attentive listener. He is also someone who can take himself and his experiences with immense seriousness and then, a few pages later, put on an ironic disposition, as though his own very thoughts and the sufferings he endured were made to be fictionalised. (The earlier version of the book was called “Stephen Hero”.) In A Portrait, there is a constant and nourishing conflict going on between the artist and the young man, the artist concerned with style and texture and the refraction of experience, the young man with registering what he saw and remembered, how he grew.
For many Irish male writers who came after Joyce, from Frank O’Connor to John McGahern to Seamus Heaney, the sifting of early memory, the detailed description of parents, domestic space, school, religious belief, came with the matching account of the young artist’s effort to navigate these through solitude and reading, through knowledge and language.