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My encounters with Joyce's difficult, devoted grandson

David Blake Knox

The last direct descendant of James Joyce could be frustrating to deal with, writes David Blake Knox


James Joyce and his wife Nora with their son Giorgio, daughter-in-law Helen and two-year-old grandson Stephen James Joyce in Paris in 1934. Photo: Bettmann Archive

James Joyce and his wife Nora with their son Giorgio, daughter-in-law Helen and two-year-old grandson Stephen James Joyce in Paris in 1934. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Bettmann Archive

James Joyce and his wife Nora with their son Giorgio, daughter-in-law Helen and two-year-old grandson Stephen James Joyce in Paris in 1934. Photo: Bettmann Archive

I first made contact with Stephen James Joyce, who died recently, when I was making a documentary about his grandfather for RTE. Stephen was living with his wife, Solange, on the Ile de Re, a fashionable French island resort close to La Rochelle that is popular with French celebrities. For decades, a succession of requests had been made to Stephen, seeking his permission to use quotes from James Joyce's published or unpublished works. It was Stephen's common practice either to refuse such requests or to demand an exorbitant amount of money in return for his agreement.

When I first approached him, he quoted a figure of "one million pounds sterling" for any copyrighted material that I might want to use in our film. That figure was so far from what I could afford to pay, it seemed outside the realm of sanity. Despite that, I kept in touch with Stephen for most of the following year.

He was born in Paris soon after the death of Joyce's beloved father, and Joyce connected the two events in his poem Ecce Puer. "With joy and grief," he wrote, "my heart is torn."

The marriage of Stephen's parents broke down not long after his birth. Giorgio Joyce, his father, was an alcoholic who effectively abandoned his son, while Stephen's mother, Helen Fleischmann Kastor, suffered from recurring mental illness and spent much of her adult life in institutions. As a result, James Joyce became one of the few stable fixtures in Stephen's childhood. He wrote poems and stories for Stephen and, by all accounts, greatly enjoyed his grandson's company.

Their relationship assumed a more serious dimension after the German invasion of France in 1940. Stephen was half-Jewish, and James had grave concerns about his grandson's safety. That led him to seek refuge for his family in Switzerland. Sadly, James died in hospital a few months after they arrived in Zurich. In some respects, I think Stephen never fully recovered from his loss.

He was sent to America to board at Andover, an elite private school near Boston. While at Andover, Stephen wrote an essay entitled 'The Man Whom I Loved and Respected Most in This World'; the man in question was, of course, James Joyce.

From Andover, Stephen went on to Harvard. At that point, his ambition was to become a writer like his grandfather. But James Joyce was a hard act to follow, and Stephen soon proved a disappointment to some of his grandfather's inner-circle. Maria Jolas, a close friend of Joyce in his final years, dismissed Stephen as "intellectually mediocre", and described him as someone who displayed an "unjustified arrogance".

When he graduated from Harvard, Stephen went to work for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. His father died in 1976, and Stephen inherited a large number of shares in the Joyce estate. By 1982, following the deaths of his Aunt Lucia and his step-mother, Stephen had acquired an overall majority of those shares and had become the chief executor of his grandfather's literary estate.

In June 1988, a group of distinguished academics and scholars gathered in Vienna to attend a symposium in honour of Joyce. The keynote address was given by Stephen. Those present were horrified when he used the occasion to reveal that he had destroyed all the letters that Joyce's daughter, Lucia, had sent to him and his wife. Stephen also disclosed that he had destroyed letters to Lucia from the Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett.

One of those in the audience who rose to protest was Michael Yeats, the son of the poet. He argued that great writers, like his father and Joyce, belonged to the world and not to just one family. Others noted an obvious irony: James Joyce had played a crucial role in confronting and overcoming official censorship, yet now his grandson had acted as the ultimate censor of some irreplaceable archive.

In the decades that followed that symposium, Stephen pursued a relentless campaign against anyone that he thought was undermining the integrity of his grandfather's legacy. He took numerous legal actions and obtained injunctions against a host of academics, playwrights, screenwriters, composers, artists, and even some individual actors. He also seemed to take an unseemly delight in boasting about the ways in which he had managed to frustrate their intentions.

In 2000, Stephen's step-brother, Hans Jahnke, sold him the last remaining shares of the Joyce estate. This was a valuable asset, reckoned to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties every year. However, I don't believe that Stephen's actions were ever determined by financial considerations.

In his efforts to protect what he regarded as his family's honour, he was always prepared, in his own words, to "put my money where my mouth is".

Stephen was extremely intolerant of any error, however trivial, that was made in relation to his grandfather's work. He seemed to regard such errors either as a calculated insult or as the product of slipshod scholarship. Once, I casually referred to one of the "chapters" in Ulysses. "There are no f**king chapters in Ulysses!" he roared down the phone at me. "There are only episodes!" I made sure never to make that mistake again.

Dealing with Stephen could prove exhausting. Our phone conversations were really monologues on his part. I would listen while he spoke at length about his usual suspects. He was often highly critical of some of his relatives. According to Stephen, those relatives had betrayed his grandfather when he was alive. "Some of them even denied they were related to him," he told me, "But now that they can make some money out of him, they've changed their tune."

Stephen's family members weren't the only ones that he accused of exploiting Joyce's work. "Take that fellow, Louis Le Brocquy," he said. "He never even met my grandfather, but that hasn't stopped him making money out of those godawful portraits."

Above all, Stephen remained preoccupied with the "sh**ty treatment" he believed his grandparents had received in Ireland - not only when they were alive, but also when they were dead.

On this issue, I felt he had a point. When Joyce was alive, he was regularly denounced as a pornographer and a sexual pervert. No Irish representative attended Joyce's funeral in Zurich. When Nora asked the Irish Government if her husband's body could be repatriated to Ireland, her request was refused on the grounds that no Irish undertaker was prepared to handle the remains.

Nora also offered to gift many of Joyce's original manuscripts to Ireland, but her offer was turned down. Seven decades later, the Irish Government paid millions for them.

Perhaps the main grievance that Stephen expressed to me concerned his aunt, Lucia, who had spent most of her life in nursing homes or mental hospitals.

Perhaps because so little is known of her life, Lucia has attracted a good deal of speculation. Novels, plays and critical studies have been devoted to her. Some of these have made unfounded but sensational claims about Lucia that greatly offended Stephen.

I asked Stephen if I could film an interview with him. His initial response was unambiguous: "My answer to your request," he wrote, "is NO!" At other times, his opposition did not seem so definite. Twice he invited me to go to his home and discuss a possible interview. Twice, I booked my flights to France, and twice he cancelled without explanation at the last moment.

It seemed to me that there was a fundamental contradiction in Stephen's relationship with Ireland. On one hand, he claimed his grandfather was not being sufficiently honoured in his native country. On the other hand, he objected to virtually everything that was done here to mark his extraordinary genius. He described one statue of Joyce as a monstrosity. He told me that the Bloomsday celebrations were a "con job" designed to fleece gullible Americans.

Stephen claimed he read the Irish newspapers every day - perhaps, to check if any of them had traduced his grandfather. But the control he was able to exert over the use of Joyce's work came to an abrupt end in 2012 when most of the copyrights he held finally expired.

Shortly before he died, Stephen Joyce chose to become an Irish citizen. Given his fractious history with this country, that seemed a surprising decision. But I would like to think that it represented his final release from a bitter antagonism, and a last attempt by Stephen to face and accept one part of his fractured identity.

Stephen James Joyce died on January 23. He was 87.

Sunday Independent