November 9, 2012

James Joyce: cat lover and children’s book author


James Joyce wrote two cat stories for his grandson Stephen James Joyce.

A newly discovered children’s book by James Joyce called The Cats of Copenhagen has been recently published by Scribner in the United States.

Anastasia Herbert of Ithys Press, who first published the book in Ireland with a 200 copy illustrated print run, told the Guardian earlier this year that Joyce — author of notoriously difficult modernist tomes Ulysses and Finnegans Wake — reveals an “odd or even somewhat absurdist” sense of humor in this book as well as an anarchic subtext. She also gives this back story for the book:

In early August 1936, Joyce had sent his grandson ‘a little cat filled with sweets’ – a kind of Trojan cat to outwit the grown-ups. A few weeks later, while in Copenhagen and probably after hunting for another fine gift, Joyce penned ‘Cats’, which begins: ‘Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen.’ Surely there were cats in Copenhagen! But perhaps not secretly delicious ones. And so the story proceeds to describe a Copenhagen in which things are not what they seem… For an adult reader (and no doubt for a very clever child) ‘Cats’ reads as an anti-establishment text, critical of fat-cats and some authority figures, and it champions the exercise of common sense, individuality and free will.

The Cats of Copenhagen of in the second book he wrote for his grandson, Stephen James Joyce — the first was called The Cat and the Devil.

But like many issues related to Joyce and his estate, the publication of  the book is not without controversy. It was discovered in a letter dated September 5, 1936, which was donated to the Zurich James Joyce Foundation by the son of Giorgio Joyce’s second wife Asta’s son, Hans Jahnke.

Fritz Senn, the eccentric Joyce expert who runs the foundation is outraged that it is being published and contests Ithys Press’ claim that the unpublished works of Joyce are in the public domain (the published works of Joyce entered the public domain in Europe at the beginning of 2012).

Maria Popova has posted interior pages of the American edition on Brain Pickings (which appears to be the same as the Irish edition), and she reminds us that Joyce was a lover of cats (he hated dogs). The fourth episode of Ulysses in which Bloom famously converses with a cat is worth excerpting here to give context for Joyce’s writing about cats:

The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

— Mkgnao!

— O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

— Milk for the pussens, he said.

— Mrkgnao! the cat cried.

They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.

— Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.

— Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.

She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.

— Gurrhr! she cried, running to lap.

He watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly. Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after. Why? They shine in the dark, perhaps, the tips. Or kind of feelers in the dark, perhaps.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.