In April 2014, a lawyer friend asked if I might consider ghostwriting a memoir for a client he described as a difficult man. Although several candidates had been rejected because they didn’t meet the client’s strict but unpredictable criteria, my friend had a hunch I might fare better because of an affectionate piece I’d written a few years before about my grandfather.
The client’s reputation didn’t so much precede him as ride out like a pillaging army. Stephen James Joyce (you had to use the full name): the executor of his grandfather’s literary estate, who had become infamous for his ferocious sense of ownership. Who was said to be so litigious that he had stifled Joyce scholarship for two decades. Who had systematically withheld permission to quote from the work, or else demanded impossibly exorbitant fees, until most of it went out of copyright in 2012, when an article headlined ‘Fuck You, Stephen Joyce’ had been widely circulated online. Who according to D.T. Max in a 2006 New Yorker profile had said that academics should be exterminated ‘like rats and lice’ and had once warned a performance artist that he had probably ‘already infringed’ on the estate’s copyright simply by memorising a portion of Finnegans Wake – surely a unique instance of someone threatening legal action for an unlicensed copy of a literary work in someone’s head. When I asked around, two responses stood out. A novelist who’d lived in Dublin told me he was rumoured to skim cash from the Joyce-linked bars there like a protection racketeer. And a venerable French editor said, ‘He threatened to kill me! And several of my friends. You must have nothing to do with him.’
Worst of all, this descendant of one of the twentieth century’s most famously censored writers had destroyed material. In 1988, following a legal tussle over a book which described his Aunt Lucia’s life in the Northampton psychiatric hospital where she spent the last thirty years of her life, he stunned the attendees of a Joyce symposium in Venice by announcing that he’d burned all of Lucia’s letters. Also consigned to the flames were three items – a telegram, a card and a letter – written to Lucia by her former lover, as well as the best man at Stephen’s wedding in 1955, Samuel Beckett. His written response to the outraged scholars contained a cold threat: ‘I have not destroyed any papers or letters in my grandfather’s hand, yet.’
It was perhaps understandable that this descendant should feel more protective than most. The sheer – and Joycean – pungency of the ‘dirty letters’ Joyce wrote to his wife Nora Barnacle, which Stephen fought to suppress, might make any grandson want to pull up the drawbridge. Few of us can know how it feels to read that your grandfather called your grandmother his ‘brown-arsed fuckbird’.
As a tour of Joyce’s sexual topography in all its farting, flogging and frigging, the letters make for intriguing reading. They are also endearingly devoted, and however you feel about the content, skilfully written. We can’t know whether or not Joyce would have destroyed them himself if he’d had the chance. But Stephen’s view, as he’d tell me many times, was that anything too personal was ‘nobody’s goddam fucking business’. ‘Do you have children?’ he’d once asked a New York Times journalist. ‘Well thank God I don’t either. Can you imagine trying to explain certain things to them? That would be a nice job, if their whole family’s private life was exposed.’
It was curious that this man wanted to write a memoir.
There were hoops to jump through before we could speak. He only received documents via a fax machine he kept in an outbuilding of his cottage on the Île de Ré, which he sometimes forgot to check. Eventually it was established that he’d read the five articles I had sent, and approved of them. The next step was a conversation. I’d been warned to expect fits of coughing. They would sound, I was told, as if he was about to expire. But I should simply ignore them, just as his wife Solange apparently did while sparking up yet another of her forty a day. There was one in progress when I made the first call. I could hear him spluttering and moaning in the background as she went to fetch him.
His voice was gravelly, with an East Coast American accent, and a snarl he deployed for emphasis. He swerved into French whenever it suited what he wanted to say. The question of who I was seemed, as it would during every subsequent conversation, to be entirely secondary to the opportunity I presented for him to grind his axe.
‘I was born in February of 1932,’ he said, ‘which means I am now eighty-two years old. And I am descended from one of the most famous authors in the world. Although between you and me, I’m more of an Oscar Wilde man. But, as a human being, I loved him dearly, and to me he will always be known as Nonno.’
I started to respond with some waffle about the special bond between grandparent and grandchild, but he cut me off.
‘Let me put it like this. I have taken shit all my life from so-called intellectuals, and other people who know nothing about the real world. And so, before it is too late, I would like to set the record straight. The amount of nonsense talked about Ulysses in particular never ceases to amaze me.’ He pronounced the book’s name with a particular, dogged emphasis on the y. ‘So, I am looking for what the French call a nègre, though I imagine we’re not supposed to use that term now. A ghostwriter. But I warn you that you would have to deal with a very prickly character.’
The book would comprise two parts. Part One would cover a period of about a year, from 1939 when Stephen went to live with his grandparents in the village of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, to their departure for Zürich the following year and Joyce’s death there in January 1941 following surgery on a perforated ulcer. The aim of this part would be to capture the relationship that had existed between them, which he remembered perfectly even though he’d only been eight years old.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Some people – idiots – will tell you that the recollections of a near nine-year-old, at a distance of over seventy years, are not to be trusted. What do little boys remember? they say. Well, I would say to them that it depends entirely on the little boy. I was his little darling, ce que l’on me reproche le plus. They hate that, these people. The fact is that nobody can rival me in terms of knowing the man. But the way I have been treated . . . this is what gives me pause.’ This brought us to Part Two: ‘what James Joyce’s memory has been subjected to’. In other words, a rundown of the monstrous injustices he’d had to bear.
The list of grievances would become very familiar. There were many of them, but four in particular to which he kept returning. The first was a commemorative €10 piece in silver, issued by the Irish Central Bank, which had been struck with a misquotation from Ulysses – a rogue ‘that’ in the passage beginning ‘Ineluctable modality of the visible’ – and a portrait of Joyce on which Stephen had not been consulted. He’d described the coin, which had been issued on the anniversary of Nora’s death, as ‘one of the greatest insults to the Joyce family that has ever been perpetrated in Ireland.’ The second was an offshore patrol vessel which, again without consultation, had been named the James Joyce by the Irish Minister for Defence, ‘who’s a prime asshole’. The third was that the Irish government had sent no representative to attend his grandfather’s funeral in Zürich. The fourth was that a children’s story called The Cats of Copenhagen, written by Joyce in a letter to his grandson, had been published when it entered the public domain in 2012, even though Stephen claimed he’d never laid eyes on the letter in question.
We arranged a conference call with my agent to hash out the finer points. I could feel his froideur from the moment she came on the line. Too much attention to detail. Too many probing questions on the topic of whether, in fact, he had enough material to make a book. But together we got him to agree a date for my visit and to concede, in principle at least, that a contract would at some stage be required.
My flight to La Rochelle was booked for the 26th of August. Ten days before, he called to fire me.
‘May I ask why?’ I said.
‘I’m having trouble with my eyes. As you know, this is something that runs in the family. And it is impossible to get hold of a good doctor in regional France.’
I expressed sympathy, and asked when he might be in a position to proceed.
‘With the way the world is going now . . . the terrible things that are happening . . . I’m just not sure when there will be a time. You see, I know about the world. I am a student of history. Are you going on holiday?’
‘Yes, I think I said: we’re going to Corfu.’
‘That’s right, you told me, you’re going to the south of France. À bientôt.’
I rang my lawyer friend to tell him the trip was off, expressing irritation at the fact that my flights weren’t refundable. Then I thought, why not just go anyway, and see what happens?
When I called him the next day, he started ranting before I’d had a chance to speak. ‘I have two things to say to you, and I warn you that they are not pleasant.’ The first was that he had severed all contact with my friend’s firm following an unexpected bill, and was further incensed that the firm had brought up the issue of my non-refundable flights. The second, almost an afterthought, was that he now had someone else in mind to ghostwrite his memoir. I told him that I didn’t need reimbursing for the flights, since I now planned to come to the island anyway to do some work of my own.
‘That sounds very nice,’ he said. ‘And obviously we would be delighted to take you for lunch.’
‘Where in the hell did you come from?’ he said, when I found him and Solange sitting at the La Rochelle airport café.
I explained that I had somehow been channelled straight out of the terminal with the other passengers and had had to come back inside to find him.
‘Fucking idiots. There is nobody at the airport who’d give you information. The barman gave me information!’
I already knew how frequently his statements contained their own contradiction. Knew also how infectious his mood-swings were if you were trying to be deferential: because he was indignant, I became so too.
‘It’s crazy,’ I said. ‘They don’t even have anybody checking you in these days. I did it all through a machine.’
‘Welcome to the stupid future.’
By now his face was familiar from photographs. Behind his sunglasses and well-kempt beard, there was a strong family resemblance. But he’d reached a far greater age than Joyce had. As we shook hands, I wondered how many hands were left in the world that had once held his grandfather’s. My attention kept returning to his cane. Was it an heirloom? The famous ashplant? He wore a red jumper, grey slacks and suede loafers with no socks. Around his neck hung a silver necklace on a metal chain – a circle with horns coming out of it. When I asked him about this, he muttered something about it being the symbol for Jupiter, but I checked later and found that it looked much more like the symbol for Taurus. Was it a stretch to think he was casting himself as the bull-monster in the labyrinth of the all-powerful architect, Daedalus?
We drove straight to lunch in their little Citroën, which was filled with Solange’s cigarette smoke and the tinkle of a classical radio station. He was impatient with toll queues and impolite about pedestrians, especially if he thought they were overweight. But he was full of admiration for the dogs we passed.
At the restaurant, while he grappled with the parking outside, I asked Solange how long they’d lived on the island. She told me they’d started coming in 1974, and before they bought their house had always used to stay in the hotel I’d booked. But then there had been a falling-out with the owner, after which her husband had refused to set foot in the place.
‘Do you drink?’ he said, once he’d joined us. ‘Good. I don’t like people who don’t drink.’ We were offered water, and he joked that it was only good for washing. When Solange accepted some, he said, ‘You ill, or something?’ After the waitress had left, he said, ‘I hate to be served by girls that are not good looking. And she is one of the best-looking on the island.’
‘He’s very spoilt,’ said Solange.
He told me how much his grandfather had liked a wine from the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, and that ‘following his example’, he and Solange had got into the habit of importing it.
‘What I really like is a white Burgundy,’ he said. ‘The problem is, I like the white, but the white doesn’t like me.’
I mentioned the scene in Ulysses where Bloom orders the glass of Burgundy and the gorgonzola sandwich.
‘Well, if I’d have been him, with a gorgonzola sandwich, I’d have had a red.’
I said I couldn’t remember if it was specified in the book or not.
‘Check it.’ The glare blazed for a moment, then he relaxed. ‘Of course, Ulysses is not my favourite book. And that’s where all Joyceans go wrong.’ He noticed a dog under a nearby table, and brightened. ‘Oh! Il y a un cousin par terre! We’ve had one dog in our lives. A long time ago. And we never wanted another one because we had that dog, and that dog was special. We used to ship her back and forth from Africa as excess baggage.’
He declared that from a young age he’d vowed never to write creatively. ‘When you have an ancestor such as I have – no. I think it’s stupid to try.’ Together, we tried to think of counterexamples, getting as far as Dumas père et fils and Kingsley and Martin Amis. You should only do it, said Solange, if you have something to say – and even then, under a different name.
For the next forty-eight hours he kept me under watch. That afternoon he came to my room to talk, growling as he arrived about the ‘bloody bitch’ he’d fallen out with years before, who almost certainly hadn’t worked at the hotel in years. In the evening he called to vent spleen about an article in the New York Times which suggested that the decline of Joyce’s eyesight was caused by syphilis. (‘If Nonno had syphilis, why didn’t his wife have syphilis? Why didn’t his son have syphilis? I won’t go on.’) The following morning, he appeared unannounced at my room, rapping on the door with his cane, and we talked over croissants. Then he took me out for the rest of the day.
He prefaced any discussion of the memoir with, ‘If we do the book’, though he warned me that if he chose to proceed it would probably be with someone else. And there was less than a 50 per cent chance of that. He said he didn’t have the words to say how important the subject matter was to him. But he knew he would receive negative attention. He might perhaps have managed to cope with that when he was younger, but had always chosen not to, ‘in view of the way I have been treated’.
He did not, he insisted, think he was exceptional. Merely that, ‘by an accident of birth, I happen to be the grandson of one of the most famous, I never say the most famous English-language writer of the twentieth century.’ He added that he was always careful to refer to his grandfather as a ‘British writer of Irish origins’ rather than simply as an Irish writer.
‘Have you ever wished all this hadn’t been thrust upon you?’ I asked, remembering that at one point he’d said that what he should have been in life was a sports commentator.
‘Seriously? No. I may have at times thought, my God, how would I have lived if I hadn’t been who I am? But you see, what always wins out, is the relationship we had. You can’t beat that.’
Not that he had done nothing with his life, in spite of what everybody thought. ‘They say, “Here the bastard sits, judging us. He’s never done a single day’s work.” But this man they think sits raking in royalties had a thirty-plus year career as an international civil servant.’ He seemed happiest reminiscing with Solange about all the travelling they’d done with his job (when he wasn’t talking about dogs). Spain. Yugoslavia. Greece. But mainly Africa. ‘In Senegal,’ he said, ‘we were friends with everyone from our driver up to the President. The President used to wink at us!’
He was ‘a Joyce, not a Joycean’, yet considered himself the supreme arbiter of what constituted valuable Joyce scholarship. At the same time, he admitted that he rarely read anything in full. Richard Ellmann’s book, for example, hailed by Anthony Burgess as the biography of the century, ‘has major flaws in it as far as I’m concerned’, even though ‘I’ve never been inclined to read 900 pages about my old boy.’ He damned Joyce’s friend Arthur Power for having claimed to quote his grandfather word for word thirty years after his death: ‘Now, I don’t know anybody who has that type of memory. And until I had my stroke – my light stroke – several years ago, I had about as good a memory as anybody can wish for, because I had a Joyce memory, which I inherited.’
In the same breath, he told me that his own account wasn’t always to be trusted. He’d been lamenting the fact that there was no penicillin around to save Joyce from his perforated ulcer, and I asked him how lucid his grandfather had been at the end.
‘He was lucid on his deathbed,’ he said. ‘And, if I write the book, I’ll tell the story. I wasn’t there. The last time I saw him, he was being carried out of the pension. And, of course, stupidly, when I was young, I said he was strapped to the stretcher and squirming like a fish, and some idiot got hold of that and it went out.’
‘Is that in the Ellmann biography?’
‘Probably. You can forget that. That’s a little boy’s imagination. But he was obviously in pain. I will explain all that in the book – if I write it.’
His exasperation seemed to peak whenever the topic of the supposed ‘difficulty’ of the work came up. ‘If you build a house, you start with the foundation and you build up! You don’t start with the third floor and build down. Any normally constituted young man or woman can read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But if you start with Finnegans Wake, you’ve got real problems.’
He hadn’t read Ulysses himself until he was close to fifty, because he’d always been told it was an ‘impossible book’. Then, one winter, he’d taken it off to a cabin he and Solange owned in the Swiss Alps and read it in eight or nine days. ‘And I said to myself, what is all this crap they talk? I may not understand everything, but I certainly haven’t found it a boring book. As a matter of fact, I’ve enjoyed it.’
We returned to his detestation of academics. ‘Who does a writer write for?’ he asked. ‘Not for critics. For the reading public. I don’t want to go analyse this stuff! What did he mean by this and what does this mean? I want to enjoy myself. I want to go back to being a little boy and reading Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh. No, really! How cold my nose tiddely pom, how cold my toes tiddely pom, and things like that. That is what is enjoyable.’
When I told him I’d recently met someone who was working on a Mandarin translation of Finnegans Wake, he leaned forward and fixed my gaze as if he were issuing a death threat. ‘Listen to me. If you’re ever in a meeting again where someone is discussing a translation of Finnegans Wake, you can quote me directly: it is untranslatable. That does not mean that you cannot have it in other languages. But you must call them adaptations. And frankly I would say the same thing about Ulysses.’
All translations were flawed, anyway. He reminded me that he was fluent in three languages, which wasn’t very many (‘my grandfather had command of at least twelve’), his third being Swiss German (‘a sort of throat disease’). And when he’d worked at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, he’d listened to the finest interpreters in the world producing ‘utter crap’.
Mistakes were an inevitability. Take the poem ‘Ecce Puer’, written to celebrate Stephen’s birth, which came less than two months after the death of Joyce’s father: ‘In any book of poems you pick up, there are two mistakes in it, which no Joycean found, but I did. Because I’ve got the manuscript.’ He took his responsibilities very seriously, along with his co-trustee, Sean Sweeney, whom he described as his ‘oldest friend’. And if a request for use contained even the smallest mistake, the answer was no. ‘If they can’t even copy a text, that’s it. Finished. I’m not interested.’
This too was the danger of talking to journalists: they always got things wrong. Every article written about him over the years was plagued with inaccuracies. But as Sean had said when one of them upset him: the articles are unimportant. All you have to do is look at the photographs and you know the whole story. ‘The little boy looks at the old man and the old man looks at the little boy. And you understand that there is a special tie between them. It’s there. It exists. But you see, we live in a world of lies, falsehoods, cheats, crooks, pimps – whatever negative you want to call them.’
The topic of France invariably sent him berserk. He was, he said, ‘thoroughly fed up’ of living there. This led to perhaps his most striking declaration of all: that he had lately been in touch with the governments of several unnamed European countries to try to cut a deal whereby he and Solange would be given a place to live for the rest of their lives, of at least 150 square metres in size, with a garden, or large terrace. In exchange for which, when they died, that country would receive ‘my entire Joyce collection. Free. In my view it is worth somewhere between 15 and 20 million. Not pounds. But let’s say it is worth a lot of money. I don’t recall another offer like it.’
‘Would you impose any conditions?’
‘Oh yes. There are conditions. Certain people will not be allowed to view the material. Those who have done me dirty. With the letters and things.’
‘About the letters,’ I said.
‘My aunt had a bad enough time,’ he snapped. ‘The last thing she needs is for people to go raking through her life looking for muck. There was no literary value in those letters. Anyway, it was done at Sam’s express request.’
‘What about the more . . . private ones? The ones written to your grandmother?’
He was driving at the time. I braced myself for him to veer off the road in a fury. But his attention had alighted on a Cairn terrier that was pissing against a lamppost. ‘That’s a real dog,’ he said, laughing. ‘Not one of those stinking rats.’
Referring to Beckett as ‘Sam’ was characteristic. He was a fervent dropper of other names, who liked mentioning his friendship with Merlin Holland (Oscar Wilde’s grandson), or the fact that he’d shared rooms at Harvard with Paul Matisse (grandson of Henri, and stepson of Marcel Duchamp) – but whenever Beckett came up in conversation, he would pointedly withhold the surname. He told me he’d been insulted ever since he got married for having chosen ‘someone, and I won’t tell you who’, as his best man, ‘who didn’t like public ceremonies. I was accused of lèse-majesté. “How could the little bastard do that?” It certainly didn’t bother the person concerned.’
Funny that he’d be such a dog person, given Joyce’s love of cats (‘Mrkgnao’). And especially given that the two stories Joyce had written for him were called The Cat and the Devil and The Cats of Copenhagen. When he came to my hotel room on the second day, he brought a copy of the former for me, published as a modest illustrated pamphlet by a Swiss youth organisation. This was ‘his’ Joyce book, so he’d signed it, and written a dedication to my son. He pronounced it ‘one of the best children’s stories ever written’, but he didn’t approve of the title, having crossed it out and changed it to The Cat, the Devil and the Lord Mayor.
He angrily lamented what had happened to The Cats of Copenhagen when it entered the public domain: ‘People who think they are Joyceans will do anything. Someone went to the Zürich James Joyce Foundation and found a children’s story there in a letter, copied it, and decided to publish it as a book. The Foundation had got hold of it from my stepbrother. The letter was supposedly addressed to me. I would swear in any court of the world that I had never seen it until it was sent to me in book form, with illustrations. Since then, I have received a photocopy of the manuscript, which has no opening and no closing greeting. Very strange. And this thing is selling like hot cakes all over the world! What do you do?’
His house, a fisherman’s cottage tucked down one of the cobbled alleys of La Flotte, was called An Bairneach – Gaelic for The Barnacle. When we got there, he ushered me straight through and into the garden, since he could no longer trust anyone enough to take them into the living room, where his ‘Joyce collection’ was kept. While Solange and I were admiring the wild strawberries outside, he appeared in the doorway holding his grandfather’s death mask over his own face. Solange said she found it indecent.
‘That’s the way he was,’ he said, handing it to me. ‘Though they never asked my permission to make it.’
‘You were a little young,’ said Solange. ‘Your opinion didn’t count.’
‘If it ever has,’ he said.
I kept thinking of the glorious cry of affirmation which ends Ulysses, and how all he ever said was no. Maybe all those years of referring to Joyce as Nonno had taken their toll.
On the way to the market that morning, he’d said, ‘As soon as I open my mouth, the whole island trembles.’ When we got there, he’d gone from stall to stall pretending to machine-gun the vendors with his cane, all of whom had obligingly convulsed as if riddled with bullets. As each subsequently greeted him by name, he’d said, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like for me. People come up to me in the street and tell me who I am.’
Over drinks at the hotel on my last night, he wondered aloud how much time they had left. ‘I think what I would consider a reasonable limit is ninety for her, and eighty-eight for me.’
‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘I’ve got five more years.’ (In fact she had only two, passing away in 2016, but he was less than a month off his eighty-eighth birthday when he died in January 2020, ten days
after the anniversary of his grandfather’s death seventy-nine years before.)
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You’ve still got your original head of hair.’ He jokingly lamented the fact that their diamond wedding anniversary was coming up. ‘I think I’ll do nothing.’
Solange laughed her irresistible smoker’s laugh. ‘That’s the best way of celebrating.’
‘What was the date of your wedding?’ I asked.
The coldness slammed in. ‘Look it up in a book, my friend.’
On the morning of my departure, he brought the offending €10 Joyce coin for my perusal over coffee in the hotel bar. ‘Look at it,’ he fumed. ‘A cross between a baboon and an orangutan. I went out in the street and asked people who they thought it was, and I got everything under the sun, including Groucho Marx. They made 10,000 of these, and look what my number is: 9,979. They pretty much gave me the last one. Listen: I love the Irish people. But I am not going to do this book unless I can clobber the Irish government. There are dozens of Irish men and women who not only fought for independence, but gave their blood, their suffering, goodness knows what for their country. They are the ones who should be on the coin. Bloomsday was a day, then it was a week. Now it’s a month, for all I know. It is not done for Joyce. It’s done to make money for the Irish state. And the way I’m treated by them is not just pissing on me, it’s shitting on me.’
‘Have you ever been to Bloomsday?’ I said, without thinking.
His voice was eerily quiet. ‘You must be kidding. Me? Go in with those garbage collectors? You haven’t got me right, my friend.’
‘I just thought, perhaps, once . . .’
‘No! What for? I am a Joyce. Not a figure of ridicule for these people. This is . . . a biscuit or sugar?’
‘It’s a piece of chocolate.’
‘I’ll always eat chocolate.’
‘If I do the book,’ he said on the way to the airport, ‘I’ve been thinking it could start with everything he did on the morning I was born. Which of course I was told about by my mother and father. And possibly the fact that he gave me his name. By the way, do you prefer to be called James, or Jamie?’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘I get called both too. Anyway. I give you permission to write about me. People might be interested to know: what is this monster called Stephen Joyce really like when you sit down and have a quiet talk with him about things? And don’t underestimate the draw of the old boy.’
At the airport, he got out of the car to say goodbye. ‘If you have any trouble and your plane doesn’t go, give me a call.’ He said he would be in touch, and drove off to La Rochelle to collect his new glasses.
A few days after I got home, I received an envelope in his shaky, boxy handwriting. It contained a copy of the Romansh edition of The Cat and the Devil which he’d promised to send me, and no accompanying note. This time, he hadn’t adjusted the title.
Photograph © Bettmann / Getty Images, James Joyce with his grandchild, Stephen James Joyce, 1934