Fighting Irish

James Joyce’s Grandson Stephen and Literature’s Most Tyrannical Estate

In a story of frustration—and ultimately, triumph—Gordon Bowker recounts the many hazards he faced writing his new biography of James Joyce; the biggest Cyclops of all is the author’s litigious grandson, Stephen. Plus, to celebrate Bloomsday, how Fifty Shades of Grey is like Ulysses, and librarians who hated Joyce.

When I proposed a James Joyce biography to my publisher, I was aware that the deadliest booby trap on the road ahead was the Joyce estate's explosive trustee, Stephen James Joyce, the author's grandson.

He had denied the singer Kate Bush permission to include a few lines from the sexy “Penelope” chapter in Ulysses in a song, and got a program in celebration of Joyce banned from Irish radio. By threats of legal action he had prevented Brenda Maddox from including a postscript about Joyce's disturbed daughter, Lucia, in her book on his wife, Nora, and forced Carol Loeb Shloss, Lucia’s biographer, to cut extracts from letters between her and her father. But more imprudently, he had tried to prevent the National Library of Ireland from exhibiting some of his grandfather’s manuscripts—which it owned—and it took an act of the Irish Parliament to frustrate him.

James Joyce himself coined the term “biografiend,” suggesting that he also had a low opinion of biographers and would probably refuse to cooperate with anyone attempting to write his life story. But in fact he did commission an American author, Herbert Gorman, to write one, even though he then tried to control what went into it. When Gorman showed him what he had written, Joyce demanded he cut out anything to do with his dissolute father, his schizophrenic daughter, and his “irregular marriage.” Since 1904, when he eloped from Ireland with Nora Barnacle, the couple had remained unmarried for 27 years, during which time they produced two children. But he told everyone he had married Nora before leaving Dublin, a lie he did not want to see exposed.

Joyce was very quick to take offence and threaten court action, and after Gorman's mutilated text was published, it was not until he had been dead for 18 years that the next biography appeared: Richard Ellmann's 900-page James Joyce of 1959 (updated in 1982). Since then, others have hesitated to take on the great writer, for two clear reasons. Ellmann's is considered one of the greatest biographies of the 20th century, and following it would almost inevitably attract the critical wrath of those Joyce scholars who have come to revere it. Secondly, they feared the venom of Stephen James Joyce, to whom biographers were indeed the biografiends of his grandfather’s imagination and who had inherited his readiness to prosecute.

I felt sure that, unlike the National Library of Ireland, no government would come to my aid if Stephen ever got me in his sights. To avoid that, I had to tread carefully. The estate had learned in advance about what Maddox and Shloss intended and Stephen had immediately demanded a say in what went into their books. It was the story of Joyce and Gorman all over again. I therefore decided to keep quiet about what I was doing. Only my agent, my publisher, and a few trusted friends were in the know. To others I said vaguely that I was writing about Joyce as an exile, strictly avoiding the dreaded word “biography.”

Even so, I shuddered every time Stephen went on the attack, wondering if I’d manage to get my book into print without this intimidating “guardian of the flame” ambushing it. An article in The New Yorker by D.T. Max, exposing the intensity of Stephen’s hostility (heavily loaded with curses and maledictions) toward those wishing to quote his grandfather's words, especially biographers, was particularly unnerving. It was as if in ranting against Max he was ranting against me. I knew that Joyce would soon be out of copyright, but I still decided to be careful not to quote excessively. Once he was in the public domain, the prevailing atmosphere of menace would disappear.

However, to make the book safe, I decided to look closely at the rule of “fair usage” permitting works under copyright to be quoted without permission within certain limits. This rule is not widely known about or understood, but is fairly straightforward. Under copyright law, one is allowed to quote passages from published work for purposes of criticism or comment, and passages of a certain length (no more than around 400 words) for advancing a narrative, as long as they do not represent “the heart of the book.” Stray beyond this and the lawyers can get you. They can also pounce if you quote from unpublished material, which remains in copyright. But “fair usage” is a rule that can only be kept alive by authors being courageous enough to invoke it. Literary estates depend heavily on it being relatively unknown, and publishers are often complicit in demanding that authors obtain copyright clearance for even short passages quoted.

I was well aware that others had been thwarted by literary estates. Anthony Mockler was forced to drop his biography of Graham Greene after it had already been written, and was able to publish it only after the author’s death. Aspiring biographers of Sylva Plath have been frustrated by her husband, Ted Hughes, who destroyed pages of her diaries wherever it mentioned him, in so blocking future attempts to write a comprehensive account of their stormy marriage. Ian Hamilton, the British writer, embarked on a biography of J.D. Salinger, only to be stopped in his tracks when Salinger took him to court and prevented him quoting from letters their recipients had deposited in various libraries. Some people wrongly believe that those owning letters or manuscripts also hold the copyright. But ownership of the physical document is one thing, the right to charge for its usage is quite another. After an author’s death, that right belongs to whoever inherits it.

While writing a first draft, I did consult lawyers. They advised me to avoid contact with the Joyce estate and follow fair usage to the letter, carefully going back over what I’d written and applying the test. Fortunately, Joyce, unlike many other writers, drew heavily for most of his creative writing on events and people in his life, so one could quote passages from his novels, poems, and essays that were both revealing of his life and also examples of his playful writing style. Furthermore, passages pushing the narrative along often revealed his state of mind regarding his writing, and were well worthy of comment. So I felt safe in criticizing, commenting, as well as advancing the story using quotations within the fair-usage rule. The few fragments of Joyce's unpublished works that I found I simply paraphrased.

Meanwhile, I kept an eye on the news, trying to gauge the mood of the trustees, especially the irascible Stephen. However, my nervousness was suddenly allayed by a surprising development. The Joyce estate had settled with Shloss, but it was handed legal bills of a quarter of a million dollars. I relaxed, feeling that the trustees might want to retire from the battlefield to lick their wounds and reconsider their policy. As if to confirm this, after 20 years of asking, Kate Bush was finally allowed to use her “Penelope” lines. The atmosphere seemed suddenly to have changed, and I handed in my manuscript feeling fairly confident that it was immune from attack.

The book was supposed to be ready for publication two or three years ago, but the amount of material I had amassed made that increasingly improbable. I began to hope that by the time I was ready to deliver the manuscript of the book to my publisher, the end of Joyce’s copyright would be imminent. And that's how it turned out.

On Jan. 1, 2012, Joyce's copyright expired. He is now back in the public domain, so anyone—scholars, biographers, and even singers—can now quote at will from works of his published in his lifetime. The booby traps are cleared away and no pouncing lawyers or fire-breathing literary trustees can waylay them. The power of one of literature’s most tyrannical estates had been conclusively broken.