James JoyceJames Woodall recalls an odd publishing kerfuffle involving Stephen Joyce (James Joyce's grandson), a biography of Nora Barnacle (James's wife) and a controversial epilogue ...


Twenty years ago I was involved in a fight with the grandson of one of my heroes. No fists were bared--I'm unpugilistic by nature. It was a bureaucratic tussle, back when I was a lowly editor at a London publishing house.

In the spring of 1988 a manuscript arrived on my desk. I was at Hamish Hamilton and my boss wanted me to line-edit it. It was a life of James Joyce's partner and later wife, Nora Barnacle, by Brenda Maddox.

Maddox was an American-born journalist living in London (where she still lives). The little I knew about her included that she was an expert on satellite communications and had written a biography of Elizabeth Taylor. Interested in the wives of great writers, Maddox later published studies of Yeats and D.H. Lawrence, as well as an acclaimed biography of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. I soon found her likeable, feisty and opinionated.

James Joyce remains for many readers and scholars the greatest novelist of the 20th century. He was the literary touchstone of my youth. Along with "Dubliners", "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses" (I've never managed to finish "Finnegans Wake"--I'm not alone), much of what I'd learnt about Joyce I'd hoovered up in my teens from Richard Ellmann's biography, first published in 1959.

Nora Barnacle's loyalty, and some of her frankness and earthiness, can be gleaned from Ellmann's seminal book. But it's clear he never considered her consequential. Maddox did: she admired Ellmann, but was convinced that the woman to whom Joyce was faithful for 36 years was central to his conception of literature. "Nora" was to be the story of the woman married to the man who invented Molly Bloom.

The manuscript didn't disappoint. I loved it from the moment I began working on it. Maddox's Barnacle, a chambermaid when Joyce met her, came through as inventive, funny and very much of her own mind. She knew her way around a clever barb, such as her assessment of the modest flats the couple had rented throughout Europe: "No room to swing a rat." Through Maddox's text, unfussily written and wearing its learning lightly, Nora and her pioneering, eccentric lover danced like characters in a novel.

In particular, Maddox pulled no punches over Joyce's deepening alcoholism in his years of exile, nor his strange sexuality. His "re-wooing" of Nora via letters in 1909, when he was in Dublin and she in Trieste, was a case in point.

The so-called "Dirty Letters" are epistolary aphrodisiacs (and can be read in their entirety in the Ellmann-edited "Selected Letters" of 1975). Joyce felt his and Nora's passion for each other needed to be kept alight by words that shift, fascinatingly, between besotted lyricism and outright pornography. Infamous phrases, such as "My sweet naughty little fuckbird" toll through the letters like a darkly erotic mantra. If Nora sent replies, they've vanished.

Published simultaneously in London and New York on Bloomsday 1988--June 16th, the day on which "Ulysses" is set--"Nora" went on to win that year's Los Angeles Times Book Award, and later served as the basis for a feature film of the same name, starring Ewan McGregor as Joyce and Susan Lynch as Barnacle. But the volume nearly didn't make it to the shops. As we were preparing it for press, we were contacted by Stephen Joyce.

Born in 1932, Stephen is the lone son of Giorgio, Joyce's alcoholic son. His mother, Helen Fleischmann, suffered from chronic schizophrenia. Stephen, who knew his grandfather as a boy until the latter's death in 1941 (he called him "Nonno"), had been brought up by guardians and educated in America. For years before I'd heard of him, he'd lived in Paris working for the OECD. He had not, until the late 1980s, taken a concerted interest in the affairs of his grandfather's copyright. With "Nora" that changed.

Stephen has become a fierce guardian of information pertaining to his grandfather's so-called "private life". (This is despite the fact that few skeletons seem to have been left in Joyce's closet after Ellmann's biography.) Some speculate that Stephen's zeal for protecting the family name is his way of compensating for his own dysfunctional upbringing. A close acquaintance of his, whom I interviewed years ago, suggested that Stephen had claimed Joyce and Nora as the parents he never had. When scholars and biographers root around the psyche of his grandfather, scavenging for influences, Stephen seems to take it personally.

Maddox, who had met and interviewed Stephen, became concerned in the spring of 1988 when official and written permission from the Joyce estate to use quotations was not forthcoming. Stephen had become upset over one detail in particular.

Maddox had already agreed to drop one item from the book, right at the biography's end, as barter for retaining all quoted material. Yet bound proofs of "Nora" were piled high in Hamish Hamilton complete with the offending item: a poised epilogue, just over 16 pages long, about the decades Joyce and Nora's daughter Lucia spent in a psychiatric hospital in central England. Maddox had not clarified (at least to me) that she had offered to sacrifice the epilogue. I don't blame her--it was original research and beautifully written. But it had to go.

Lucia Joyce had first shown symptoms of mental instability in the late 1920s, and did eventually go mad. To the Joyce saga of nomadism, drunkenness, improvidence and mythical fame--and also of tragedy and dysfunction--Maddox's gentle account, which concentrated mainly on Lucia's treatment and uncontroversially on her fads and phobias, was in my view an elegiacally perfect coda. Stephen was having none of it.

On the fourth-floor of our offices in Kensington, every single proof had the epilogue sliced out with scalpels. In America, I believe some bound proofs did escape before this mutilation. None did in London.

Word got out of this development, and I was soon pressed to spill the beans about our negotiations with Stephen. A Sunday Times journalist named Geordie Greig, now editor of the Tatler, took me to lunch in a swish Covent Garden eatery, together with his bruiser of a chief editor. But I could not say a word about it, and didn't. Hamish Hamilton had been tied by the Joyce estate to a contract of confidentiality, hammered out over many weeks with tense visits to lawyers in Windsor. Maddox was gagged from talking to the press and from ever disseminating her epilogue, as indeed are her heirs.

"Nora" was thus published in slightly truncated form. Since then, Stephen has become notorious for his vocal lashings of international Joyceans and for blocking, for example, a new 1997 edition of "Ulysses"--the details of which and much worse can be found in a comprehensive 2006 New Yorker article by D.T. Max--a chronicle of his belligerence and, on the part of the many who've given way, cravenness. Joyce's estate has had a diligent censor.

The estate was bloodied for the first time last year in a lawsuit from Carol Schloss, Lucia's biographer. Schloss wanted to publish supplementary material to her book "Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake" (2004) electronically, without fear of being sued for breach of copyright. She won her case (which was settled out of court).

Recalling those fraught, rather aggressive weeks 20 years ago, I figured an excellent tonic would be to visit the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich. I did so this summer.

In the heart of the old city, the foundation was established in 1985 by Fritz Senn, a Joyce expert and collector. The building is low-ceilinged with small rooms and many shelves of books by and about Joyce, including a first edition of "Ulysses" and a mint-condition, signed first edition of "Finnegans Wake". The foundation is not a shrine, but a living space for students, scholars and casual visitors. Though the address corresponds to none Joyce lived at, he did of course write most of "Ulysses" in Zurich.

Senn, an undemonstrative 80-year-old with long white hair, has no special claim on the writer. Yet he may be the most dedicated Joycean on the planet. Like many, he deplores Stephen's antics, and laments his efforts to censor a man who for years endured the censorship of his greatest novel. When the subject turns to the controversy over the "Nora" epilogue, Senn quips "wasn't that blackmail of sorts?"

The foundation's proudest possession is a suitcase-load of papers--well beyond the reach of Stephen--donated in 2006 by a stepson of Giorgio's (he married twice). These include 50 letters and 34 postcards by Joyce, as well as manuscript material relating to "Finnegans Wake" and some of his poetry. The original documents are locked away in a Zurich bank vault, but laser copies are available for visitors to read. It is profoundly moving to gaze at Joyce's handwriting from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as his substantial sketches for the "Wake". This was the closest I had ever got to him.

But the foundation lacked a certain artefact, one that I have counted among my proudest possessions: an unmutilated bound proof of "Nora" from 1988. Sitting down for a long conversation with Senn, this kindly but sharp-minded man of Joyce, I handed him a photocopy of the story of Lucia, the quashed epilogue of "Nora", with Brenda Maddox's blessing. In Zurich it can now be read. This was neither a vast gesture nor a hugely significant contribution to Joyce studies. But 20 years later, it felt satisfying to put a small wrong right.


Picture credit: maxf/flickr

(James Woodall is a writer based in Berlin. His last article for More Intelligent Life was about the Locarno Film Festival.)