Stephen Joyce, the boy who became guardian of his grandfather’s legacy
James Joyce’s grandson, who died in January, was a complex and controversial figure
James Joyce with his grandson Stephen in 1934. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
“Of the dark past
A child is born
With joy and grief
My heart is torn . . .
A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!”
When James Joyce crafted these lines, he was contending with the full force of elemental things at their most intense. Family, love, birth, death, grief – the joyful, bitter, messy complexity of human emotion and experience. His father, John Stanislaus Joyce, had died less than two months previously. They had not seen each other in person in many years, and the younger Joyce had not returned to Ireland to attend his father’s funeral. James Joyce’s first and only grandchild, a boy, had just been born. The collision of these two significant life moments, and Joyce’s complex reflections on them, produced Ecce Puer – a poem which recalls WB Yeats’s famous observation that we create poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves. Alongside Joyce’s grief and guilt for his lost father, there is a deep and compelling tenderness for the new life that has come into his world. It finds expression in a heartfelt wish for the newborn in his cradle: “May love and mercy/ Unclose his eyes!”
The poem was written in 1932; like so much of James Joyce’s work, it features in the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI), the partnership between University College Dublin and the National Library of Ireland which opened in September 2019. Ecce Puer was included not only because of its deceptively simple power to move readers just as it did almost 90 years ago, but also to recall the last direct descendent of James and Nora Joyce. When his grandson was born, Joyce asked the universe for “love and mercy”; with the passing of that grandson, Stephen James Joyce, on January 24th last, it feels that wish might be usefully invoked again.
Since the idea of creating a Museum of Literature Ireland – with the work of James Joyce at its centre – was first broached in 2010, its chairman Eamonn Ceannt had been in close contact with Stephen, keeping him updated on the Museum’s progress. As the National Library’s lead representative on the project, I travelled to visit Stephen Joyce in his French home in May 2019, to talk to him about it and to hear him recount the story of his life and his grandfather’s(Original Caption) 1934-Author James Joyce is shown with his grandchild, Stephen James. legacy, as he saw it.
At 87, the child of Ecce Puer was a white-haired, still-imposing man, who at certain moments and with certain gestures greatly resembled James Joyce. Stephen James Joyce cherished his extraordinary literary legacy from his grandfather. But he was also far more than the subject of a poem and the inheritor of two famous names. He had lived a fascinating life in his own right, and was a complex and often controversial character.
Born on February 15th, 1932, the son of Joyce’s son Giorgio and his wife Helen Kastor, Stephen spent his earliest years in France, coming to know his grandfather well during that period. That time came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the second World War. The Joyce family fled from Paris in 1940, to Vichy initially, travelling on later that year to Zurich via Geneva and Lausanne, where they would live for the rest of the war. James Joyce himself died suddenly in Zurich in January 1941. No representative of the Irish State attended his funeral, on Wednesday January 15th, 1941 at Fluntern Cemetery. Instead, it was Lord Derwent, the British minister to Bern, who gave the eulogy.
These experiences marked the young Stephen profoundly. “I was a refugee,” he said simply.
He saw himself first and foremost as the guardian of his family’s reputation and privacy: ‘I am a Joyce, not a Joycean’
They were also an intriguing counterpoint to what might otherwise have been a childhood of privilege, at least in material things. Helen Kastor was a wealthy American, and as a consequence her son attended Phillips Andover Academy in the 1940s, then as now one of the foremost high schools in the US, preparing its pupils for the elite universities. Stephen recalled that his English was so poor when he arrived into the second year at Andover that it was decided that he should take classes in German for two years. Nonetheless, he went from Phillips Andover to Harvard, where he ultimately took his degree. The years in Harvard left their mark. The breath of New England in the 1950s wafted through his courtly, deliberate, elegantly articulated English, perfumed also with a hint of the other languages in which he was fluent – French, Swiss-German – and in which much of his intimate life had been conducted.
Stephen Joyce said he considered a life as a diplomat, but ultimately chose a career as a public servant with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. During his OECD career, Stephen and his beloved wife, Solange Joyce, spent time in Africa, including periods in Senegal and Cameroon. Following his retirement, they settled in the windswept, light-filled Île de Ré, off the coast off La Rochelle in the west of France. Though Stephen never really shared his wife’s great love for the island itself, Solange made the old fisherman’s cottage into what Stephen called his first and only real home.
Approaching that cottage, where Stephen was still living with determined independence until last year, was something done with considerable trepidation. When we had first spoken on the phone to arrange the visit, he had switched suddenly from English into French. It was a clear and impressively unsettling test of something he had been told about me, and served both as evidence of his piercing intellect, and as a sharp reminder of his fearsome reputation in the Joycean world.
Until James Joyce’s work came out of copyright in 2011, Stephen Joyce had headed up and administered the Joyce estate, a task he dedicated himself to after retiring from the OECD. His engagement with academics, publishers, artists and institutions worldwide was often bruising. Over the years he refused permission to quote from or use his grandfather’s work to large numbers of creative and scholarly projects, and the stories of the unvarnished phone calls conveying his disapproval and refusal were legendary. His relationships with friends in the Joyce world could be volatile, and for all those who had considerable though sometimes exasperated affection for him, many others experienced him simply as a gatekeeper whose combative decision-making they found hard to understand and difficult to deal with.
Unsurprisingly, the courteous elderly man I met, in a home filled with the happy household gods of domestic life (photographs and drawings; figures of owls and hedgehogs received as little gifts, and testaments of friendship; books and comfortable chairs), perceived his role very differently. On the mantelpiece in the livingroom was a photograph of James Joyce, and Stephen pointed out to me the portrait of himself as a child hanging on the wall behind Joyce in that photograph. It brought home very forcibly how constant a presence they were and had been in each other’s lives, and how important the idea of those family connections was to Stephen’s sense of himself. It was clear that he determinedly saw himself first and foremost as the guardian of his family’s reputation and privacy. “I am a Joyce, not a Joycean,” he said.
In later years, Stephen felt he had engaged deeply and seriously with his grandfather’s work
Nonetheless, copies of Joyce’s work lined the bookshelves in the house, the core original works taking up a strikingly small amount of space given their immense impact on the world of literature. The shelves were crowded instead with different editions, translations, selections; from his 30s onwards, Stephen collected editions of his grandfather’s work in different languages. And there were also many that testified to Stephen’s own cultural and literary interests, which spanned languages and genres. He spoke compellingly of the tragic German writer Heinrich von Kleist – a reminder both of his own facility with languages and his grandfather’s multilingual abilities –- and of the “Long Russians” like Tolstoy. He recalled vacation days in his youth spent cocooned in bed, luxuriously working his way through their epic tales of a world that would later be of considerable personal significance, through the Russian heritage of his wife. This was the literature he chose to focus on during his Harvard years, passing up the opportunity to study Joyce together with Proust despite the encouragement of fellow students.
In later years, Stephen felt he had engaged deeply and seriously with his grandfather’s work, with a uniquely personal and illuminating perspective. He had an eye for precision and detail, and an impatience with a perceived lack of care and seriousness in others – the introduction of a rogue apostrophe into Finnegans Wake and the inaccurate rendering of “A” Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as “The” Portrait being particular bugbears, and individual examples he relied on heavily to sweepingly dismiss many Joyce-related projects. His focus always returned swiftly to the original work. Stephen had a particular fondness for Ecce Puer, and indeed for much of Joyce’s other poetry and verse; one of Joyce’s bitingly witty broadsides, Gas from a Burner was framed and prominently displayed on a wall in the house. Stephen spoke also of the importance of the stories in Dubliners, emphasising the power of even a short and deceptively slight story such as Eveline –- and noting in passing that The Dead stretches the definition of the short story with its novella-like length.
With a mixture of affection and exasperation, he talked too of Ulysses, the “blooming book”. Stephen was concerned that the aura of Ulysses, its sheer size and forbidding reputation, the obsessive attention it receives, might put people off reading any of Joyce’s works – that it might be a roadblock, where other texts could be a gateway. He was nonetheless at pains to emphasise that Ulysses is not unreadable. He invoked his own experience that the novel is a commitment that repays the investment – and one perhaps most fruitfully approached as part of a programme of reading Joyce incrementally, starting as early as childhood. As Stephen Joyce put it himself in a direct address to very young readers in a 1989 introduction to The Cat and the Devil:
“Nonno was a famous writer. What he wrote was then and is today considered by many to be complex and difficult. Yet he found the time to sit down and tell me this wonderful story in very simple, straightforward language, the language a four-year-old boy (or girl) could understand . . . Later, when you grow up, you will remember your friend James Joyce who told you this story and pick up and read the other books he wrote – at least I hope you will.”
He paid frequent tribute to Solange, whom he married in 1958 with Samuel Beckett as his best man
“Nonno” is the Italian word for grandfather, and its intimacy evokes the closeness of the relationship between the young Stephen and his ailing grandfather. The children’s tale The Cat and the Devil was originally written as a letter from “Nonno” to “Stevie” in 1936, and was one of many stories they shared. Stephen’s abiding memories were of the patient and considered responses his grandfather gave to his childish questions, and the measured, generous way Joyce reacted to queries that the other adults around them might have found uncomfortable. Stephen recalls innocently asking if he could have a ring his grandfather wore “when you are gone, Nonno”, and Joyce’s promise that he would have it when old enough to wear it.
Ecce Puer is a poem of sons and fathers and grandsons, but it should not obscure the central role that women played in the life of James and Stephen Joyce. Stephen recalled his grandmother Nora’s lifelong devotion; her grief at the death of her husband, and how hard it must have been to deal with a “rambunctious” little grandchild in the midst of it. He reflected compassionately on the mental illness experienced by both his mother Helen and his aunt Lucia, and emphasised the importance of women such as Sylvia Beach and Harriet Weaver in his grandparents’ lives (Dear Miss Weaver, the biography by Jane Lidderdale and Mary Nicholson, was a particular recommendation of his.) He commended the work of Sheila and Mary Gallagher in Galway in restoring the Nora Barnacle House – the “houselet”, as he called it. And he paid frequent tribute to Solange, whom he married in 1958 with Samuel Beckett as his best man, describing her beauty, her intelligent kindness, his sense of acute loss since her death. Above the mantelpiece, in the heart of their home, hung a portrait of Solange’s Russian mother Vera; the woman, Stephen said, he loved perhaps more than anyone other than Solange herself.
In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom argues that “force, hatred, history, all that” are not, in the end, what life should be about. Over his almost 88 years, Stephen Joyce experienced them all, but what struck me most was how often our conversation turned to the idea of love – the love which Bloom tells us is what really matters. In the beautiful garden at MoLI, a display of roses dedicated to the keen gardener Solange Joyce pays tribute to the centrality of love, in what was only one of the ways in which the ties between Ireland and the Joyce family were strengthened in 2019.
Early last year, Stephen Joyce asked Eamonn Ceannt to come to the Île de Ré, to help him apply for Irish citizenship. Thankful throughout for the assistance given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Stephen was particularly pleased when President Michael D Higgins subsequently congratulated him on becoming a citizen. He was delighted to receive his Irish passport – although, mischievous to the last, he remarked that the cover should be green, not maroon.
When so much of James Joyce’s work explores the themes of love and of homecoming, Solange’s roses and Stephen’s passport felt like the fitting conclusion to a very long odyssey indeed.
Katherine McSharry is deputy director and head of development at the National Library of Ireland