Leave James Joyce Alone!

Deceit in biographical writing


in Archive


On my way to the cafe here in Trieste, I walk past the Scala Dublina, the Dublin stairs. It’s number 12 on the official James Joyce tour of the city, and the rest of the walk will take you to a cafe he liked, a restaurant where he ate, the shore where he went swimming with his son. (You will not find on the tour the apartments he was thrown out of when he couldn’t make the rent or again when the woman he was living with out of wedlock, Nora, started to show signs of pregnancy.) A bespeckled Joyce peers at you from the side of the stairs, on his little commemorative plaque, to let you know the great man himself used to walk up and down these stairs so many years ago.


  • James Joyce: A New Biography by Gordon Bowker. 656 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.

Cities that also lay claim to Joyce: Dublin, of course, with its endless Bloomsday notations. Zurich, where he and his family sat out the war, and where the great man died. Paris, where he met his lady publisher Sylvia Beach and held court at the local restaurant. There are plaques over half of Europe, streets and boulevards and plazas named after him, statues bearing his likeness. The cities even swap out materials, like when an 18th-century Dublin bar was bought and moved to Zurich because the decor had been referenced in Ulysses. Joyce didn’t even have to like a city for it to claim him as its own. He just had to pass through, or maybe scribble something down about it in his oeuvre.

It’s not just cities that squabble over his legacy. People do, too. Seventy years after his death, Joyce is still the subject of lawsuits and territorial pissings as scholars fight for access and his family tries to restrict it as much as is humanly and legally possible.

In the process, we’ve turned a man into a demon. Stephen Joyce was the grandson of James and Nora Joyce, and they raised him for a while after the emotional deterioration of his mother. After too many scholars and writers took glee in unearthing family secrets, including the madness of his own mother, the madness of his aunt (James’ daughter Lucia), and the filthiest love letters ever sent between two people, who just happened to be his grandparents, he closed up shop. He became resentfully litigious, suing small productions of readings from Ulysses for copyright violations and refusing to grant reprint writes to anyone who wanted to quote from Joyce’s work in their own books.

From there the relationship between the estate executor and scholars became more and more antagonistic. Each side had a tendency to overreact. Stephen Joyce sued anyone who even looked at his grandfather’s work funny, and scholars and writers pranced around in publications calling the heir a madman and an asshole. When the bulk of the Joyce estate fell into the public domain in the EU, the small Irish publisher Ithys Press chose as its test case a direct provocation. Because it’s undecided whether the unpublished material falls into the public domain alongside books like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, Ithys selected a short children’s ditty, The Cats of Copenhagen, to be brought into print. The fact that this story was originally written for and to Stephen in a private letter addressed to him can be seen as a bald “fuck you” to the gatekeeper. Stephen Joyce released a statement expressing his displeasure.

As I was reading Gordon Bowker’s new biography of James Joyce, I wondered what exactly we had gained from these covert raids into the private life of this writer. Bowker spends a great deal of his time recounting personal details that can be directly linked to Joyce’s writings. Characters that Joyce created on the page are returned to their real life origins. A throwaway reference — although anyone who flailed around in Ulysses or Finnegans Wake knows there was not much that was really throwaway in his books — gets extrapolated and explained. The airy, fantastical moments in these beautiful books, books that live mostly in your head anyway, are reduced down to black and white, into to puzzles to be solved or ciphers to be decoded.

There is also some of the other biographical nonsense, of examining a culture that produced such a man and allowed his work to flourish as well as the nation that he fled. But mostly he’s doing the man’s laundry. He’s hanging out underpants; he’s examining stains. And Joyce had a lot of stains. He was not what you would call a very nice person. He was kind of an entitled prick. But it’s difficult to see how important that might be.

Bowker wrote a column for the Daily Beast, complaining how difficult Stephen Joyce was trying to make things for him and other writers. Commenting on Joyce’s work’s falling into the public domain, he celebrated, “The booby traps are cleared away and no pouncing lawyers or fire-breathing literary trustees can waylay them. The power of one of literature’s most tyrannical estates had been conclusively broken.”

And yet for the life of me, I cannot figure out how else Stephen was supposed to react. OK, so the destruction of letters and other private items was a step too far. But when scholars and biographers complain about the gatekeepers to the estate, especially when those are family members, what do they expect? Biographers may claim noble and spotless intentions, but for the most part they deal in gossip. Stephen saw the people who raised him reduced to cartoon figures. He watched as the biographer of his very troubled aunt, who had recurring periods of madness and spent most of her life in an institution, hailed as not schizophrenic but merely artistic and damaged by her father’s sexual love for her. His grandfather was called a liar and a cheat. His parents, private figures both, faced a scrutiny they did not deserve. Stephen’s father, Joyce’s son, was called a worthless layabout for never really having a career, and his mother was called mad. If I were Stephen, I would have started to burn documents, too.

I have changed my mind about Stephen Joyce. I once used to call him a bastard along with all of the other Joyceans. I railed about the integrity of the estate and the damage done to decades of scholarship. But then I started to read that scholarship. I read about Lucia’s madness. I read James Joyce’s dirty letters to his wife. I read speculation about their sex life. I read about Stephen’s mad mother and layabout father. I read all sorts of explanations for why Ulysses is less magical and more explicable than I might have wanted to believe. And I changed my mind about Stephen. I no longer saw a madman, I saw a son and a grandson protecting his family. Perhaps he did so with a shotgun when a more subtle instrument was called for, but this was a man who loved his family.

I would call for more venomous literary executors. More thwarting of snooping, more litigious threatening behavior. Let the gatekeepers build all the moats they want. Joyce himself fiercely protected his privacy, and wanted to protect the privacy of his wife and children. It’s only fitting then that the task fell to someone just as guarded. I don’t feel enriched by Bowker’s biography — I think the world could have gone on just fine without it. But a world without Stephen Joyce… that I don’t particularly care to picture. • 20 July 2012