James Joyce Celebrates His Birthday

February 2, 2017, is the 135th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce (above).

In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places that Joyce found his own birthday to be a topic most fascinating (he made certain that his novel Ulysses was published on his 40th, in 1922) and he tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens.

Ellmann quotes Joyce himself on the subject of James Stephens:

“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 name of 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 was amazed that he and Stephens were both fathers of a boy and a girl. One of each. 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, two years before Joyce.

For Joyce the shared birthday and the other details were no small matters, as he began to consider Stephens a possible collaborator: he wanted Stephens to aid him with 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 a discussion of 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

Joyce did not so much cancel the idea of Stephens as co-author as allow it to evaporate (that quoted “Ah” above says so much), 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 is titled “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 personally translate the above minor 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 of verse, which prevented him from seeing it as it is: a half-written half-thought. The ultimate outcome was that “Jameses Joyce & Stephens” did end up as collaborators, on this one poem. 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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