Sunday, 2 February 2014

Happy Birthday Mr Joyce!

Today, 2 February 2014, is James Joyce's 132nd birthday. It's also the anniversary of the publication of Ulysses and (unofficially) of Finnegans Wake.

Joyce liked to think about his birthday....That February 2 was Candlemas helped to confirm its importance; that it was Groundhog Day added a comic touch; and Joyce made it even more his own by contriving, with great difficulty, to see the first copies of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake on that white day.   Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

In 1927, he was astonished to learn that the Dublin poet, James Stephens, was born on the very same day as he was. That's Stephens, on the left, walking beside Joyce and the Irish tenor John L. Sullivan. Joyce called this picture 'Three Irish Beauties'!

Three Irish Beauties
Joyce's friendship with Stephens is another example of how he loved 'to accept coincidence as a collaborator'. Stephens later described how, and why, Joyce befriended him.

One evening my concierge told me as I came in that a tall1, beautiful, blind gentleman had called and had left a note for me. It was from Joyce, and it asked me to meet him the next day. After that we met several times a week for a long time. I discovered that he approved of me in the most astonishing fashion, but it did take a little time to find out why. Then as the Dublin newsboys used to yell at customers, the whole discovery was made.
   How Joyce made this discovery I don't know, but he revealed to me that his name was James and mine was James, that my name was Stephens, and the name he had taken for himself in his best book was Stephen: that he and I were born in the same country, in the same city, in the same year, in the same month, on the same day, at the same hour, six o'clock in the morning of the second of February. He held, with a certain contained passion, that the second of February, his day and my day, was the day of the bear, the badger and the boar. On the second of February the squirrel lifts his nose out of his tail and surmises lovingly of nuts, the bee blinks and thinks again of the Sleeping Beauty, his queen, the wasp rasps and rustles and thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte, the robin twitters and thinks of love and worms. I learned that on that day of days Joyce and I, Adam and Eve, Dublin and the devil all shake a leg and come a-popping and a-hopping, yelling here we are again, we and the world and the moon are new, up the poets, up the rabbits and the spiders and the rats.
   Well, I was astonished. I was admired at last. Joyce admired me. I was beloved at last; Joyce loved me. Or did he? Or did he only love his birthday, and was I merely coincident to that? When I spoke about my verse, which was every waking moment of my time, Joyce listened heartily and said 'Ah'. He approved of it as second of February verse, but I'm not certain that he really considered it to be better than the verse of Shakespeare and Racine and Dante. And yet he knew the verse if those three exhaustively!

James Stephens, 'The James Joyce I Knew', The Listener, Oct 24 1940 

'On the second of February the squirrel lifts his nose out of his tail and surmises lovingly of nuts' - that sounds as if Joyce had been telling Stephens about Groundhog Day, doesn't it? 


The background to this friendship was a crisis in the writing of Finnegans Wake, in 1927, caused by the hostile reception of the early published extracts. Joyce's biggest shock was learning that his patroness, Harriet Shaw Weaver, hated what he was writing. When she wrote to him, in February, 'It seems to me that you are wasting your genius', he was so upset that he took to his bed.

I am more and more aware of the indignant hostility shown to my experiment in interpreting 'the dark night of the soul'.  The personal rancours of disappointed artists who have wasted their talents or perhaps even their genius while I with poorer gifts and a dreadful lot of physical and mental hardship have or seem to have done something would not apply in your case. And this is one of the chief reasons why, being unable to change (I) propose to discontinue my way of writing. The first and third parts being done (5 years work) I could perhaps do the the second and the short fourth, but I need rest, and a lot of it. Any duffer ought to be able to pick up the threads for part 2 out of the immense sombre melopées2 of 1 and 3.   

To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 14 August 1927

It's astonishing that Joyce thought that 'any duffer' could finish his book (If we only knew what those threads for part 2 were!).

The obvious man to finish the book was James Stephens. Joyce came up with this scheme even before he learned that they shared birthdays. It was because of the coincidence of their names, which also reminded him of his favourite Dublin whiskey, John Jameson and Son (Ellmann says that Joyce told Gilbert Seldes, 'All Irish whiskeys use the water of the Liffey; all but one filter it, but John Jameson uses it mud and all. That gives it special quality').

According to Ellmann, another coincidence was that, for years, Joyce had been carrying around pocket photographs of Patrick Tuohy's portraits of his father and Stephens (right). That had to be a sign.

As regards that book itself and its future completion, I have asked Miss Beach to get into closer relations with James Stephens....He is a poet and Dublin born.  Of course he would never take a fraction of the time or pains I take but so much the better for him and for me and possibly for the book itself.  If he consented to maintain three or four points which I consider essential and I showed him the threads he could finish the design.  JJ and S (the colloquial Irish for John Jameson and Son’s Dublin whiskey) would be a nice lettering under the title. it would be a great load off my mind.  

Letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 20 May 1927

If only we knew what those 'three or four' essential points were!

Ten days after writing the above, Joyce found out that they were born on the same day:

The combination of his name from that of mine and my hero in (A Portrait) is strange enough. I discovered yesterday, through enquiries made in Paris, that he was born in Dublin on 2 February 1882.  

Letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver 31 May 1927  

Here's one of the most tantalising paragraphs in Ellmann's biography:

He spent a week in November (1929) explaining to James Stephens the whole plan of Finnegans Wake. Stephens promised him 'if I found it was madness to continue, in my condition, and saw no other way out, that he would devote himself heart and soul to the completion of it' (Letter to HSW) 

So Joyce told Stephens 'the whole plan of Finnegans Wake' - and he kept it to himself! 

1 You can see from the photograph that Joyce was tall compared with James Stephens

2 melopée - a musical term for a recitative


  1. Robbert-Jan Henkes & Erik Bindervoet, the Dutch translators of FW, have a lovely piece on Joyce and Stephens in Genetic Joyce studies:

    'On the 12th of May 1927 (Letters I, 252) he was so exhausted that he wanted to quit: "I lay down my pen anyhow and if I knew anyone who I thought had the patience and the wish and the power to write Part II on the lines indicated I think I would leave the chair too and come back in a few years to indicate briefly how Part IV should be done. But who is the person? There is no such absurd person as could replace me except the incorrigible god of sleep and no waster quite so wasteful though there is one much more so." Eight days later he informs Miss Weaver that he asked Miss Beach to get into closer relations with James Stephens. (20 May 1927, Letters I, 253). Joyce eventually regained his strength, but two and a half years he is again seriously thinking of handing over his pen. In November 1929, he invites Stephens to Paris, and within a week, strolling along the Seine river, in the shadow of the Eyefultower, Joyce explains the basic plan of the Wake to his prospective successor or stand-in. What would a Wakeologist give if he could have been present at these walks and talks! Willingly he would offer his limbs, some or maybe all of his senses, his year-income, his wife and children if he could but get a glimpse of these conversations, of which not a word has come down to us. It is high time that somebody reconstructs this major episode in world literature. The material is ideally suited for a fictionalized docudrama. (Scene. Exterior. We see two Irish beauties stroll along the bank of the River Seine, the deaf one leading the blind. They talk. Fumes and plumes of condensed breath come out of their mouths. Especially the blind one is talking. We hear music. We see swans. Cut to Interior of the Royal Flemish Academy in Brussels. Two simple Dutch translators continue their talk.)'