James Joyce: Free at last

By Kevin Bloom 16 January 2012

For decades, James Joyce’s sole living descendant has presided over his grandfather’s literary estate like a resentful bouncer at a Dublin strip club. But as of New Year’s Day 2012, European Union copyright on the master’s published work expired, and soon the unpublished works will come out of copyright in the Unites States. So who is Stephen “James” Joyce, and what was his problem? By KEVIN BLOOM.

It hasn’t been an altogether tough life for Stephen Joyce. At Harvard University, from where he graduated in 1958, he once shared a room in Eliot House with Paul Matisse and Sadruddin Aga Khan—the master of the house at the time, a certain John Finley, boasted to the New York Times, “Where else would you find, in one room, the grandson of Matisse, the grandson of Joyce, and the great-great-great-great-grandson of God?” After graduation, he moved on to the Africa desk at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and as the record of that particular institution on the continent attests, he probably didn’t need to do a whole lot to earn his comfortable salary. When he retired from the OECD in 1991, his focus turned to James Joyce’s peerless and immensely profitable literary estate, of which he was the chief executor and final decision-maker. Why then, given all the ace cards he’s been dealt, has Stephen Joyce turned out to be such an asshole?

For example, he’s done his best over the years to ruin as many international Bloomsday events as he can—Bloomsday being the annual commemoration of the date, 16 June 1904, that the action of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses took place. In 1988, at the Venice celebration, he rained mightily on everyone’s parade by describing how he’d destroyed not only the letters that his troubled aunt Lucia, Joyce’s daughter, had sent to him and his wife, but also the lover’s correspondences sent to Lucia by Samuel Beckett; in 2004, at the Dublin event, a planned series of Ulysses readings were cancelled after he promised to sue the Irish government.

Small wonder that a few hours before the copyright on Joyce’s oeuvre lapsed, on 1 January 2012, the literary website UbuWeb posted a Twitter link to an article in the Irish Times—“EU copyright on Joyce’s work expires”—together with the following message: “Fuck you Stephen Joyce.” As the Irish writer Mark O’Connell noted in the New Yorker magazine: “While the language may have been unusually confrontational, the sentiment it expressed is widespread. The passage into public domain of Joyce’s major works has been talked up in certain quarters as though it were a bookish version of the destruction of the Death Star, with Stephen Joyce cast as a highbrow Darth Vader suddenly no longer in a position to breathe heavily down the necks of rebel Joyceans.”

This wasn’t the first time that the magazine had focused on James Joyce’s sole living descendant. In 2006, DT Max wrote a lengthy profile of the maestro’s grandson, who exclaimed on first being contacted that he was “pleased” in the interest shown in him by the New Yorker, and that he “wasn’t ashamed” of his middle name: James. In the article, Stephen, then seventy-four, often referred to himself in the third person, like Julius Caesar or Salvador Dali, and would every now and then slip into fits of swearing (hence, perhaps, the justification for UbuWeb’s little message above).

Noted Max: “He depicted himself as an average reader who wanted other average readers to share in the pleasure of what he had discovered only later in life. In school, he once said, English was his worst subject; for many years, he had been intimidated by his grandfather’s writing, and had not read it. Eventually, he said, he read Dubliners, then moved on to A Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses. (He did not mention Finnegans Wake.) He had found the books not only readable but appealingly human. ‘As I got older, I realised Joyce is not the difficult writer they say he is,’ he said. ‘When they say, We’ve done so much for him, I think, What about the thousands, not to say millions, of readers they scared off? All this crap they write—that’s good old American slang!’”

By “they,” of course, the younger Joyce meant the scholars and academics, who’d contributed 261 works of criticism on the writer to the United States Library of Congress, and were his sworn and lifelong enemies. But while the above argument may seem reasonable on first inspection, egalitarian even, it falls apart quickly when one picks up a copy of Ulysses and flips to any page, or when one considers what some other great writers have had to say about the book. The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, for instance, who had no problem with English at school, said: “The modern masterpiece of confusion is Joyce’s Ulysses.” Jonathan Franzen, in a recent Art of Fiction interview for the Paris Review, suggested that Ulysses was Joyce’s cathedral, in the sense that when he conceived of it what went through his mind was the thought, “I’m going to build something ?grand that you’re going to admire and study for decades.” The examples are endless, and almost all of them make Stephen “James” Joyce look like a grasping and venal dolt who’s spent his entire life out of his depth.

So now there is good cause for worldwide Joycean scholars to cheer. On 1 January, all the books published during Joyce’s lifetime became available for publication and quotation without reference or the payment of royalties to the author’s estate. Soon, the unpublished works, most notably Joyce’s letters, will come out of copyright in the United States. What is almost certainly going to result is an explosion in biographies, adaptations and retrospectives that will deliver the life and works of James Joyce to a much wider public—a public that, for all his bluster, were kept in the dark by Stephen Joyce. DM

Read more:

  • “Has James Joyce Been Set Free,” in the New Yorker;
  • “The Injustice Collector,” in the New Yorker.