Ecce Senex: Stephen James Joyce | James Scudamore | Granta

Ecce Senex: Stephen James Joyce

James Scudamore

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.’

James Scudamore

James Scudamore is the author of the novels English Monsters, WreakingHeliopolis and The Amnesia Clinic. He is working on a novel about the descendant of a famous writer.

Photograph © Alun Callender

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