James Joyce and His Birthday

February 2, 2016, is the 134th birthday of James Joyce. In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places Joyce’s fascination with his own birthday (he made certain that his novel “Ulysses” was published on his 40th, in 1922) and tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens. Ellmann quotes Joyce:

“The combination of his name from that of mine [James] and my hero in A.P.O.T.A.A.A.Y.M. [“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”] is strange enough. [The hero of that novel is Stephen.] I discovered yesterday, through enquiries made in Paris, that he was born in Dublin on the 2 February 1882.” (Ellmann, 592)

Ellmann notes that Joyce also found it amazing that he and Stephens were both fathers of a boy and a girl. Either Stephens did not know or did not want to tell Joyce that they did indeed share a birthday but not a birth date, as Stephens was born February 2, 1880.

For Joyce the shared birthday and other details were no small matters, as he was considering asking Stephens an enormous favor: he was intending to request his participation in finishing “Finnegan’s Wake,” a novel that by this time, the late 1920s, had occupied Joyce’s world for years. He was, it is reported, willing to propose a co-authorship of “JJ & S (Jameses Joyce & Stephens),” which in Joyce’s world of puns also would have been an enjoyable pun on the name of the popular whiskey, Jameson’s. The coincidences of birth date and names were so convincing that it shook Joyce. It took him seven months to work up to discussing his idea with Stephens. Ellmann quotes a letter by James Stephens:

“One evening my concierge told me as I came in that a tall, 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 took me a little while to find out why. …
“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 Sleeping Beauty, his queen, the wasp rasps and rustles and thinks that 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 I was merely coincident to that? When I spoke about my verse, which was every waking minute 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 of those three exhaustively!
“Now, in order to bring this birthday to an end, let’s do it in the proper way. If I were Joyce’s twin, which he held, then I had to celebrate this astonishing fact in my own way. So upon our next birthday I sent him a small poem. Joyce reported back to me that he was much obliged. He practically said ‘Ah’ to my poem and I could almost see him rubbing his chin at it.” (Ellmann, 593)

James Stephens, James Joyce, John Sullivan

James Stephens, James Joyce, John Sullivan

The idea of having Stephens become co-author was not so much cancelled as allowed to evaporate (that quoted “Ah” above), but the two remained friends. Joyce celebrated his and what he thought was Stephens’ fiftieth birthday, their “jubilee year,” by translating one of Stephens’ poems. The poem was “Stephen’s Green”:

The wind stood up and gave a shout
He whistled on his fingers and
Kicked the withered leaves about
And thumped the branches with his hand
And said he’d kill and kill an kill
And so he will and so he will.
(Ellmann, 655)

Joyce took the time to translate the poem into French, German, Latin, Norwegian, and Italian. As Stephens himself might have written, Joyce may have loved it as an example of fine “second of February verse,” and thus superior to all other kinds, which prevented him from seeing it as it is: a bit of doggerel. The ultimate outcome was that Jameses Joyce & Stephens did end up as collaborators. Here is Joyce’s Italian translation of the above poem, titled “I Verdi di Giacomo”:

Balza in piè Fra Vento e grida.
Tre dita in bocca fischia la sfida.
Tira calci, pesta botte:
Ridda di foglue e frasche rotte.
Ammazzerò, ei urla, O gente!
E domeneddio costui non mente.
(Ellmann, 656)

Joyce died in 1941; Stephens in 1950, at the age of either 68 or 70. He wrote many novels and poems and spent the last decade of his life as an essayist and personality on BBC radio.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 2 asks, “You have three hundred words to justify the existence of your favorite person, place, or thing. Failure to convince will result in it vanishing without a trace. Go!” My contribution to this small celebration of James Joyce was only 300 words; the two Jameses took up the remaining 750 or so.

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  1. livingonchi · February 2, 2015

    Haha, cheater :p Seriously, though, interesting article on Joyce. People love or hate his work. No one is in between. I’ve never read a Joyce novel. Someone told me he was hard to read and that was it for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · February 2, 2015

      Aw. Perhaps you would like Joyce for yourself. Someone’s “too hard” is another person’s “cool stuff!” Here is the last paragraph (no spoilers here) of his short story, The Dead. It’s snowing here, so that fact always reminds me of this:

      “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”–James Joyce, “The Dead,” Dubliners

      Liked by 1 person

      • livingonchi · February 2, 2015

        Ah, I can see why some people wouldn’t like him. His style is a lot more like poetry woven into prose. You have to pay attention. I’ll keep my eyes open for something by him. I think Hubby is in the “likes Joyce” category. He might have something sitting around. Thank you for the reply!


      • livingonchi · February 2, 2015

        Ha! Ok, I stand corrected. Hubby is in the “hates Joyce” category. He says there’s a joke that “Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Too bad nobody has read it.”. Anyway, if I run into anything by him, I’ll check it out. I suppose I should know for myself how I feel.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Martha Kennedy · February 2, 2015

          Read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s very lovely and very accessible. Then read “Araby.” I believe most people “hate Joyce” hate the idea of Joyce. The real guy is interesting and, I think, pretty likeable. I say this and I’m not a “fan.”

          Liked by 2 people

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