James Joyce’s The Cat and The Devil

When famous writers write children’s books, equal attention is paid to the process as to the book itself.  Why would a famous adult author venture forth into the genre of kid’s lit?  Turns out that most have similar impeti: some child who was near and dear to them.  For Bradbury, it was the birth of his first child.  For Huxley, a way to entertain his niece.  And for Mr. James Joyce, author of The Cat and the Devil, it was a dear relationship with his nephew, Stephen.  It seems to have often been the case that children’s stories penned by adult authors were not necessarily intended for publication.  And so was the case with The Cat and the Devil. Written in a letter to his nephew in 1936, The Cat and the Devil was published posthumously for the first time in 1957 in a collection of Joyce’s letters.  In 1964, it was illustrated for the first time by Richard Erdoes.  Then again in 1965 (by Gerald Rose), and again in 1981 (by Roger Blanchon). For a book not even intended for publication, it’s had a fair run. Which of course illustrates the worth we put on something by someone who has produced worth before. Even if it’s in an entirely new genre.

The question then: is this little fable worthy of attention?  The answer: sure. As a glimpse into a playful and indulgent side of Joyce, it’s rad.  As a moment to enjoy a clever foray into nonsense, of course it’s worth while.  But as an enriching, complex, or meaningful story?  Meaningful, not really.  Enrighing, sort of.  But complex?  Definitely more so than it initially appears.  The Cat and the Devil is an Irish tale explaining the existence of a French bridge across the Loire.  The devil builds the bridge for the people of Beaugency under the condition that the first to soul walk across it will be his. And who walks across it first? A cat. Who doesn’t walk. He runs. Because the townspeople pour cold water over him. That’s one way to outwit the devil.

The story itself seems as simple as simple could be, as most fable’s are.  But the clever beauty of Joyce’s story-telling peaks through in subtle details.  If this is an Irish fable, why does it take place in France?  If we are meant to applaud the mayor and the townsfolk at the end for cleverly one-upping the devil, why does the mayor flaunt gold chains?  And why is the devil the only character who treats the little cat with any tenderness?  In fact, I’d say it’s the devil with whom we sympathize, almost as if the title names the tale’s heroes– and it’s not called The Townspeople of Beaugency.  

Joyce has fun messing with a traditional fable style, and he is not coy about letting his reader in on the secret.  His last page is a postscript: 

“The devil mostly speaks a language of his own called Bellsybabble which he makes up himself as he goes along but when he is very angry he can speak quite bad French very well though some who have heard him say he has a strong Dublin accent.”

Now, even though I am fully familiar with the laughable academic tendency to over-read shit, I just can’t help myself but to dive in on this one.  Is Joyce commenting on his own role as an author?  Is the devil, with his Dublin accent, actually our lovely and misperceived author?  Both play with words, one fully capable of speaking bad French quite well but choosing Bellsybabble, and the other fully capable of writing as others do but preferring (dare I say it) a modern tone and stream-of-conscious?  Do we see the author as a builder of bridges?  Do we see a Joyce in 1936, commenting upon his own trouble with the perception and misperception of the author during his career?  Bold statements?  Perhaps he just picked up some French-o-philia living there?  Perhaps.  But when we find so much of Joyce and his own life in his novels, and when his kids books aren’t touting humor just for kids, why can’t one be an extension of the other…?

Okay, enough of that. There are definitely cooler things to talk about.  Such as, the other kid’s book by Joyce, a pseudo-sequel to The Cat and the Devil. It’s called The Cats of Copenhagen, and it also came into existence in a letter to the same nephew in 1936. I haven’t read or seen it yet. Why? Well, the story goes like this…

In January of this year, the copyrights to Joyce’s works went public in Europe. A little Irish press called Ithys Press must have just been waiting in the wings for the calendar to turn because right as it did, they put out an illustrated version of never-before-published, The Cats of Copenhagen. Illustrated by Casey Sorrow, Ithys calls it “Exquisite, surprising, and with a keen, almost anarchic subtext”. Check out their whole treatment of the thing here. Especially see the statement defending their publication of Joyce. As far as I can tell, their project looks rad, and it’s extra cool to have it accessible to world… well sort of. These guys only released 200 copies of the book, selling at 300-1200 pounds. Right. Not something I’m gonna see for awhile. So, nice idea guys, glad you’re making some money, but when do we get to see it?

If the Joyce estate has anything to do with it, it will take even longer to get to the public than if we stay on the tack Ithys has set. According to the grandmaster’s estate, only published works went public in January. Well. Jury’s still out on that one. We over here just have to sit back and wait for the politics to hopefully hand us an accessible copy.  Might take awhile…

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