After spending 7 years of my life head to toe with the characters of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, you can understand my amazement when, at 11 A.M. that autumn morning, the phone rang and the person on the other end introduced himself as "Stephen Joyce."
On the morning of September 18, 2008, Stephen James Joyce, grandson, and only surviving relative of renowned Irish writer, James Joyce, called from France in response to a letter I sent to him some weeks before.
The letter I sent, at the request of an Irish independent producer, asked for permission to use excerpts from Ulysses, and a few letters his grandfather wrote to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, in my feature-length screenplay, Shakespeare & Company, which tells of the censorship struggle to publish Ulysses; the Sylvia Beach story.
I was no more prepared for the nearly two hours of conversation which followed than I am to repeat, from memory, what transpires during a dream, and I had to pinch myself to believe that I was, in fact, awake.
What follows is from a collection of notes that were hastily scribbled on pieces of scrap paper on the desk. In the interest of protecting Mr. Joyce's privacy, I will not include anything that might be considered personal, but only that which has universal, historical value:
Among the first things Stephen Joyce told me is that he likes to be called "Stephen James Joyce," and that I'd better be "very careful with the facts," not unlike his grandfather, I thought, who went over the details of a biography someone was in the process of writing about him with a fine tooth comb.
Of his grandfather, ("JJ"), Stephen would saying only that he is "not just a passing ghost" to him. He asked me to keep our conversation "strictly confidential," a request I was fully prepared to honor until, in the closing minutes of the call, he gave me permission to write about it.
Joyce said that since my screenplay is about the bookstore "Shakespeare & Company," and not about Ulysses, or his grandfather, per se, it was none of his business what I did, or who I quoted from. He said explicitly that he didn't want to get involved with the project one way or the other.
That said, he told me that the only edition he would authorize me to take passages from is the original 2/2/22 "Shakespeare & Company" version, published by Sylvia Beach, of which there were 1,000 copies printed worldwide. It was a pronouncement he made dramatically, almost defiantly, and one with which I was fully prepared to comply. He mumbled something about the Harry Ransom Center having a copy.
During more than 90 minutes we spent on the phone, Joyce said three times he would "neither help nor hinder me" in my efforts. He asked if I was familiar with that quote which he took from an American play. (When I checked later, I saw that, according to the New York Times, "When the biographer Deirdre Blair first approached Samuel Beckett in the late '70s, 'the first sentence he ever said to me was, 'So you're the one who's going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am,' Blair recalled. But he also told her, 'I will neither help nor hinder you,' adding, 'I'll introduce you to my friends; my enemies will find you soon enough.") The line makes perfect sense to me, esp. in light of the fact that Stephen Joyce, later in the conversation, acknowledged that Samuel Beckett was among his closest friends.
Also toward the beginning of the conversation, he asked who told me that the copyright for Ulysses would expire in a couple of years. He said that copyright depends upon where in the European Union the movie is made. He also insisted, as part of his statement that I have to be "very careful with facts," that Sylvia Beach never spent time in an internment camp (something that contradicts Beach's memoir, Wikipedia, and Harriet Weaver), and that her bookstore never closed, but only relocated.
He noted, too, that the German soldier, to whom my script refers, only appears in a book by Paul Leon, and is thus suspect. When I told him all my research came from Beach's own autobiography, he suggested she could have misrepresented things. He said I have "a problem" in that I have to sort through all the different stories and versions of events leading up to the publication of Ulysses in order to get to the "facts" when there is only one person who knew the true story, and that was his grandfather, James Joyce.
I stressed emphatically that my screenplay is not intended to be a documentary, and that I "fictionalized" his grandfather, as well as took liberties with what he calls "facts." I insisted that it is a dramatization, and not intended to be a literal representation of the events that led to the publication of Ulysses. Later on in the conversation, he repeated the word "fact" in such a way that suggests he appreciated my thinking.
I told him that Samuel Beckett isn't in the script, and why: "Beckett deserves his own screenplay." I also mentioned that his Aunt Lucia only has a few lines, and why. I said I wanted to keep JJ's family, and private life, out of it. I also told him that he isn't in the script. Stephen said that "family meant everything" to his grandfather with which I agreed heartily. He said it's my script, and my call as to who should be in it.
The relationship between father and son is a big one, Joyce noted, and I told him it played a large role in the screenplay. He added that even though he was named "Giorgio," his father liked to be called "George." I told him I knew that. He mentioned his half brother who died young -- 52, something I didn't know. "If you consider 52 young," he said and laughed.
Stephen Joyce gave me a bibliography of sources to read that would help me to come to know his grandfather better; books by Paul Leon, and others. He said that, of everyone, Harriet Shaw Weaver knew James Joyce better than anyone, and that Ellmann's biography is okay, actually better than widely considered, but Weaver was the most important person in his grandfather's life.
Frank Budgen, he added, was among his grandfather's closest friends along with Vitalo Svevo, an Italian writer JJ discovered. He also mentioned another close friend of JJ's, Valerie Larbaud, and asked me to not confuse Larbaud with another great French poet who has a similar name (Paul Valery?)
Joyce also said he considers the story of Beach's bookstore, "Shakespeare & Company," and Adrienne Monnier's bookstore, "La Maison des Amies de Livres," to be the most important story of our times, and one that needs to be told. That said, he suggested that there would be no Sylvia Beach, or Shakespeare & Co., without, he paused and I yelled out "James Joyce." He spoke of the magical day when Ms. Beach delivered the first copies of "Ulysses" to his grandfather -- a book that was published on 2/2/22 -- JJ's 40th birthday -- we both repeated the date together, then laughed like two schoolchildren in a playground. It was a discovery that, yes, we were kindred spirits.
He spoke lovingly of all the great writers who passed through Beach's and Monnier's bookstores. He asked me if I knew about the closing of the Gotham Book Mart, in New York, and spoke of the loss as if he were talking about the death of an old friend.
And, when I mentioned Ernest Hemingway (a main character in the script), he told me how he pictured Hemingway carrying a drunk "Nonno" home from bars on his shoulders.
Joyce said he spent a good deal of time at The Ritz, a bar which was liberated in 1945, and which is also featured in my script.
As if reading from an envelope, he called out my address: "Walnut Creek, sounds like a nice place." I responded with a line from one of his grandfather's letters from Zurich -- "a delightful nullity." He said he knows America well, went to prep school in New York, and then to Harvard. When I asked what he studied there, he responded with: "What do you think I studied?" I told him English and Philosophy. No, no, he said, history and government. He has been married to the same woman for 50 years, Solange, and acknowledged that, while she has no degrees, she knows his grandfather's work well.
Among my favorite Stephen Joyce lines, from the conversation: "America never liberated France. France liberated itself." He added, too, how his grandfather (JJ) never went to America (which I knew), and mentioned a book written by "that woman in California" about his aunt.
He said he is well-aware of what is going on in America, and the differences between California and New York. I told him I heard all about the book, about Lucia, by that writer at Stanford, and find it offensive that she would take that angle on JJ. He objected to the word "angle" which I also used in a different context. Like his grandfather, he has great sensitivity to words.
I told him I think he inherited his grandfather's talent, and wit, and suggested he ought to write himself whereupon he went off on an extraordinary description of the sea which, frankly, so captivated me I was unable to take notes on it. He recalls my having written to him in the past, fondly.
He mentioned an interview which appeared in The New Yorker and said that he had a phone conversation with the fellow who wrote it, and wasn't even told the guy was taking notes; next thing he knew, the story was published in the form of an interview. I confessed that I, too, was taking notes, but he needn't worry about my writing about our talk because I wouldn't be able to read my own notes. He said not to worry, I could write about our talk, in contrast with his original request to keep the conversation confidential.
When he said, again, that he would neither "help nor hinder" my efforts to dramatize his grandfather's story, I asked him if he would write a letter stating that. There was silence on the other end. I told him that my producer might not believe that I got a call from him. After all, I was having a hard enough time believing it myself. I told him I need tangible proof of the conversation as would the producer in Ireland. He said that I shouldn't work with anyone who doesn't trust, or believe, me.
He asked me to send him a note with the Irish producer's phone number, and he would call him to tell him "exactly what he told me." I added, for clarification purposes, that without written permission, we couldn't use the extracts because it is copyrighted material and we could be sued. He replied by saying he could give permission, "and sue you anyway" at which he laughed, and so did I, thinking he's right. There's always reason to sue if one wants to.
Joyce was reluctant to give me his phone number. I completely understood, and asked if he has an e-mail address. He has no computer, or machines except for a fax machine. I thought about asking for his FAX number, but didn't want to intrude. He doesn't even use a typewriter, he said, but writes by hand (which was his grandfather's custom, for many years). "The mail will do just fine," he said.
While he insists he's not a big fan of the Irish, he said he'd have no objection to an Irish production. He claimed that his grandfather was not Irish, but "a British subject of Irish origins," and told me not to tell that to any Irish producers cause it will rile them up. He asked if I knew the story of Joe Strick, and how the movie rendition of Ulysses was banned in Ireland for 40 years because of Irish censors.
He also mentioned how poorly the Irish treated his Nonno and Nanna. But, then, he added laughingly, and lovingly, that he and Solange were involved with the Ulysses centennial in Dublin, in 2004, and that he's been to Ireland. I recall saying it's time to let go of the Irish thing, and he agreed with me, adding he has a few Irish friends.
He asked me to send him a copy of my screenplay, and said Solange would read it first, then he would read it, and gave me his word that not one other living soul would see it. He also asked that I include the extracts from Ulysses that I wanted to use. He told me I was under "no obligation" to send it; "just don't say you're sending it, and make me run to check the mailbox every day looking for something that never comes." I told him I was scared to death to let him read the script, and he replied "You should be."
Among the last things Stephen Joyce told me was that he wants to be alive, and able to get around, so he could go to the movies himself and see Shakespeare & Company when it comes out.
He asked me to remember that he is still that 8 year old boy waiting for his Nonno to come home. More than anything, I don't want to disappoint him.
"Rest assured, you will be hearing from me again," he said. "I sure hope so," was all I could say, except to add what an honor, and pleasure, it was to hear from him. His response: "Don't say an honor; a pleasure, okay, but not an honor. Every time someone says they'll honor me, they stab me in the back."
There are things Joyce and I discussed that I won't include here. Indeed, there were times, during that conversation, that I felt as if I inadvertently entered a room, and caught someone standing naked. Only, this someone made no attempt to hide his nakedness, and invited me to witness his vulnerability with an openness one expects only to encounter in dreams.
At the risk of being audacious, I can honestly say there was an understanding, a bond, between us; one that exists between two people who have suffered deeply, and who share a great love for another human being -- his grandfather, and my muse, James Joyce.
Stephen Joyce is misunderstood. He has been maligned by those who fail to recognize that his whole purpose, his raison d'etre, has been to prevent the perverse, crass, crude commercialization of his grandfather's work and life. He is a man with immense gifts of his own who has sacrificed his own future to preserve the dignity of the works, and life, of James Joyce. For this, his grandfather would be hugely grateful.
When it was time to hang up, I felt as if I were about to be roused from a trance. I waited to hear every syllable of the word "goodbye" as if it had come from the mouth of a ghost -- not a passing ghost, mind you, but one with whom I had lived for 7 years.
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