The words many a journalist dreaded hearing: ‘This is Stephen Joyce’

Terence Killeen

Last Updated: Sunday, February 23, 2020, 18:01

Many an unsuspecting journalist, over the years, has answered a phone call to be greeted by an ominous silence, and then, in a sepulchral voice, the words “This is Stephen Joyce”.

Not only journalists: members of the public, who might have mentioned James Joyce in a letter to a newspaper, people who might have proposed some Joyce-related event, would also have heard in this manner from Stephen, James Joyce’s grandson, who died on January 23rd last.

There were two types of Stephen Joyce phone calls: ones that involved the business of the James Joyce estate, and ones that did not. In the latter, a rather lonely man, who had difficulty, to put it mildly, with face-to-face contact with other people, would ramble on, more or less in a monologue.

One lucky auditor had the pleasure of hearing Stephen recite Ecce Puer, James Joyce’s poem about him, twice in the course of an hour-long call. The recipients of these calls were usually non-professional Joyceans: actors, promoters, performers, journalists, etc. Stephen much preferred to talk to such people than to the “professional” Joyceans. It could be tedious, but it was fairly harmless.

The other kind, the kind where the business of the Joyce estate was involved, was a much more hard-edged affair.

Contention was the order of the day.

Stephen’s overall situation was not perhaps a very enviable one

It usually involved a warning about, or a refusal of permission for, some project. It would normally start at white-hot temperature, eventually simmering down to a generalised grumble.

For Irish auditors, a few animadversions against the country would frequently be thrown in, along with an occasional personal reflection for good measure.

As has been well reported, Stephen became an Irish citizen shortly before his death. This was the man who had insisted only a few years ago that a plaque honouring his grandfather in Paris bear the legend “James Joyce, a British writer of Irish origin.” So something very fundamental must have happened to have occasioned such a spectacular U-turn.

An insistent note in these telephonic non-dialogues was the importance of the Joyce family. Nowhere, outside the Godfather movies, was the word “family” intoned with such gravitas and deliberation. Matters were not helped by the fact that his wife, Solange, was frequently listening in to the “discussion” on a party line.

On one occasion when Stephen was talking, for some now forgotten reason, about French town halls and was struggling to recall the French name, a mysterious voice from nowhere suddenly hissed “mairie”. Stephen took up the word and carried on, unperturbed.

Another marked feature of these exchanges was the regular rise and fall of reputations: if someone was mentioned in a vaguely approbatory way in one call, it was quite certain that in the next this person would be reviled, continuing a long Joyce history of betrayal and sell-out.

'Oh, the professor knows it all! What’s the point of my being here when the professor can tell you everything?'

Face-to-face meetings with him, for me, were not fundamentally different, with one exception. It is a pleasure to record that in 1991, the 50th anniversary of James Joyce’s death, Stephen and Solange entertained a group of Irish Joyce enthusiasts in Fouquet’s restaurant in Paris (one of James’s favourites).

Even here there was a lot of tension – one had the feeling all the time of walking on eggshells – but the generous impulse behind it should be acknowledged. And interestingly, at that time he spoke positively about the recent election of Mary Robinson as president, perhaps a presage of things to come.

Stephen’s overall situation was not perhaps a very enviable one. With an aunt who had severe mental health troubles and a father who was an alcoholic, he and Solange decided early on they did not want to try to prolong the line of James Joyce. He frequently used to say that he never asked to be put in the situation of being James Joyce’s sole remaining descendant, that he would rather have done without it.

And to his credit he did in his earlier years carve out a path quite removed from his inheritance, both from his father and grandfather. But in exercising the responsibilities of that inheritance, he fell very short.

He was an intelligent man but not one who possessed any strong literary appreciation; the charging of enormous copyright permission fees seemed to be his only way of asserting the importance of Joyce’s legacy. And this went hand in hand with a deep-rooted suspicion of those who did actually love and study his grandfather’s work. It made for a sad disjunction which was never bridged.

It would be nice to think that somewhere at the back of his mind, as he finally decided to accept Irish citizenship, might have been some of the Irish recipients of his phone calls and their long-suffering families, many of whom also had their ears bent over the years.

Finally, my favourite Stephen story, which has the advantage of being true. He was invited by David Spurr, then professor of English at the University of Geneva, where Stephen used sometimes go to buy wine, to address one of his classes.

Things were going surprisingly well, when Stephen hesitated, searching for the name of one of the characters in Dubliners. David helpfully, as he thought, supplied it. Stephen’s reaction was instantaneous: “Oh, the professor knows it all! What’s the point of my being here when the professor can tell you everything?”

Anyone watching this scene, not knowing the person involved, would have reflected: “Well, if that guy doesn’t have some Irish blood in him somewhere, I’ll eat my hat!”