Lawsuit over 'lost genius' at the heart of James Joyce novel

'Ulysses' author's descendent accused of violating copyright law in restricting academics' access to letters and documents
Click to follow
The Independent US

So far, so ordinary. Professor Shloss started tracking down unpublished letters, medical records and other documents about Lucia and her relationship with her father, as any conscientious academic would. But then she ran into Joyce's grandson, Stephen James Joyce, and a whole world of trouble opened up.

The surviving Joyce, who controls most of the writer's estate, did not just disapprove of her project. He refused point-blank to let her quote from unpublished material, which remains under copyright until at least 2012. He continued a Joyce family tradition of destroying documents relating to Lucia, who spent her life in and out of mental institutions, and removed yet others from the National Library of Ireland just before they were due to be made public.

He wrote a stream of letters apparently intended to deter her from going into print at all, including several to her eventual publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. And his campaign bore considerable fruit: the version of Shloss's book, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, that eventually came out in late 2003, involved so many last-minute cuts to her archival material that the text came across to many reviewers as an intriguing argument with precious little to support it.

Now Professor Shloss is fighting back. Last week, with the help of a team of legal experts from Stanford University, where she teaches, she filed a lawsuit against the Joyce estate, arguing that Stephen had violated the "fair use" terms of US copyright law and improperly trodden on academic freedom of speech. Specifically, she wants to make all her archival materials on Lucia available via a dedicated website. For now, the website is password-protected, and Professor Shloss has not dared to remove the password for fear of being sued herself.

The whole experience has been bewildering for the quiet, unassuming professor, whose only interest, she says, is to further public interest in an author she and many others feel passionate about. Last Friday, 16 June, was Bloomsday, when Joyce's devotees around the world celebrate Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of his novel Ulysses, and the date of his progress around Dublin.

"Imagine - you're just an ordinary person and your life and work are held in the balance because of the threat of a lawsuit," said Professor Shloss. "Professors are not wealthy people. This is intellectual work and suddenly you wonder if it could destroy your family's security. You think, could they take my house? All of those things."

As a lengthy profile in the latest New Yorker makes clear, Stephen Joyce has had a chilling effect on academia generally, almost always denying permission to quote from documents in his possession and frequently expressing scorn for academics as narcissistic eggheads with nothing useful to say about his grandfather's work or anything else. Mr Joyce, now in his 70s, pops up occasionally at academic conferences to give vent to his feelings.

Professor Shloss is far from the first scholar to be threatened legally, or to have her publishing ambitions thwarted by his energetic defence of what he sees as his family's privacy.

She feels particularly aggrieved by Mr Joyce's low opinion of university professors. "We're the people who teach children and students to love Joyce," she protested. "To characterise us as people without a life, without a passion for Joyce, without respect for him, as somehow leeches - that's just wrong. Stephen Joyce... has a financial right [to the estate], but does that give him the right to repress people's work? Does it give him the right to shut down the free exchange of ideas about James Joyce?" she asked. "I don't think so... Joyce belongs to everyone."