"A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man" was published in 1914, Joyce's first novel. Though the hero's name is given as Stephen Dedalus, to a great extent he is Joyce, and this is autobiography, chronicling approximately the first 20 years of Joyce's life.
Joyce is famous for the difficulties of his prose, but this applies primarily to "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake." "Portrait" is a relatively easy read. The opening page is perhaps the most unorthodox and difficult of the whole book, as it is an attempt to represent the consciousness of the infant Stephen. Following this is a long account of Stephen at boarding school, under the tuition of the Jesuits. Stephen is a timid, sensitive boy, ill-suited to the harsh regime of the brothers or the rough-and-tumble interaction of his schoolmates.
The main preoccupation of the book is the spiritual and sexual angst of the adolescent and post-adolescent Stephen. Though as a young boy he is religiously-inclined, the awakening of his sexual instincts leads to a prolonged internal struggle. Stephen frequently seeks the company of members of the prostitute class, and then indulges in much tortured self-recrimination.
As a previous reviewer mentioned, the sermon Stephen hears at a school retreat is incredibly powerful and vivid- detailing the infinity of horrors that await all transgressors from God's law. If churchmen really were able to speak so powerfully it is little wonder that Ireland fell so obsequiously under the Church's thumb. But Stephen openly rebels against the sexual and philosophical repression of the Church when he becomes a college student; he renounces all the ideals of his native society and avows "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." In short, he becomes a poet.
For a first novel, "Portrait" is extremely self-important, as even the title reveals: Joyce is "The Artist," without irony. History would appear to have justified his opinion, however. In my opinion no one who intends to read "Ulysses" should do so without reading "Portrait" first. In fact, if you only intend to read one book by Joyce, I would recommend this one. It is not difficult, despite Joyce's reputation, and is a fascinating account of the coming of age of a poet, who is revealed as a young man of typical human frailties who, through pride, determination and a rejection of all surrounding influences, became the most influential, if not the most widely-read, author of the Twentieth Century.