Thursday, April 2, 2009

Literary life after death

By Rachel Keeler

Published: March 26 2009 12:59 Last updated: March 26 2009 12:59

For lovers and scholars of the 20th-century novel, Stephen Joyce has become something of a literary villain. The grandson and sole living heir of James Joyce, the Irish author and poet, has spent the past 17 years fiercely guarding his family’s estate through a series of court battles with those brave enough to try to use copyrighted Joyce documents.

In 1988, he took offense at the epilogue to Brenda Maddox’s “Nora,” a biography of Joyce’s wife, which described the decades that Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, spent in a mental asylum. Although the book had already been printed in galleys, Maddox, fearing a legal battle, offered to delete the section; the agreement she signed with Stephen also enjoined her descendants from publishing the material. Shortly afterward, at a Bloomsday symposium in Venice, Stephen announced that he had destroyed all the letters that his aunt Lucia had written to him and his wife. He added that he had done the same with postcards and a telegram sent to Lucia by Samuel Beckett, with whom she had pursued a relationship in the late nineteen-twenties.

“I have not destroyed any papers or letters in my grandfather’s hand, yet,” Stephen wrote at the time. But in the early nineties he persuaded the National Library of Ireland to give him some Joyce family correspondence that was scheduled to be unsealed. Scholars worry that these documents, too, have been destroyed. He has blocked or discouraged countless public readings of “Ulysses,” and once tried unsuccessfully to halt a Web audiocast of the book. In 1997, he sued the Irish scholar Danis Rose, who was trying to publish a newly edited version of “Ulysses,” calling it “one of the literary hoaxes of the century.” (Around the same time, Stephen expressed his intention to obstruct a proposed new edition by the American scholar John Kidd; he told the chairman of Kidd’s publisher, W. W. Norton, that he was “implacably opposed” to the project, which was never completed.) According to Hans E. Jahnke, Stephen’s stepbrother, who once had a stake in the Joyce estate, the suit against Rose, which lasted five years, cost the estate roughly a hundred thousand dollars. The estate won the case. In 2004, the centenary of Bloomsday, Stephen threatened the Irish government with a lawsuit if it staged any Bloomsday readings; the readings were cancelled. He warned the National Library of Ireland that a planned display of his grandfather’s manuscripts violated his copyright. (The Irish Senate passed an emergency amendment to thwart him.) His antagonism led the Abbey Theatre to cancel a production of Joyce’s play “Exiles,” and he told Adam Harvey, a performance artist who had simply memorized a portion of “Finnegans Wake” in expectation of reciting it onstage, that he had likely “already infringed” on the estate’s copyright. Harvey later discovered that, under British law, Joyce did not have the right to stop his performance. Stephen has also attempted to impede the publication of dozens of scholarly works on James Joyce. He rejects nearly every request to quote from unpublished letters. Last year, he told a prominent Joyce scholar that he was no longer granting permissions to quote from any of Joyce’s writings. (The scholar, fearing retribution, declined to be named in this article.) Stephen’s primary motive has been to put a halt to work that, in his view, either violates his family’s privacy or exceeds the bounds of reputable scholarship. The two-decade-long effort has also been an exercise in power—an attempt to establish his own centrality in regard to anything involving his grandfather. If you want to write about James Joyce and plan to quote more than a few short passages, you need Stephen’s consent. He has said, “We have proven that we are willing to take any necessary action to back and enforce what we legitimately believe in.” Or, as he put it to me during two phone calls that he recently made to me from La Flotte, “What other literary estate stands up the way I do? It’s a whole way of looking at things and looking at life.”

Stephen’s notoriously acerbic dealings are held up by many who question the role of intellectual property law in literary estate management.

For many it's not about money, but about legacy.

Felicity Dahl look after the estate of her late husband, author Roald Dahl.
has established a children’s museum and charitable foundation, presided over several fantastical movie adaptations, set up an award-winning website and is now promoting the new Roald Dahl Funny Prize, awarded in November in London to authors Ursula Jones and Andy Stanton.

While the extended Dahl family shares ownership of the estate and its copyright royalties – 10 per cent of which helps fund the museum and foundation – Dahl explicitly left control of his legacy to Felicity. She now oversees an ebullient team of literary agents, trustees and executors who direct exactly how Dahl’s copyrighted stories, archives and trademarked brand name may be used.

There are big variations in how way estates are handled by heirs. JRR Tolkien sold the film rights to his books in 1969. His family is now embroiled in a lawsuit against New Line Cinema over royalties from the recent Lord of the Rings films. Some authors donate full rights to charities while others leave few instructions to heirs who let the writing slip into obscurity.

But for people such as Felicity Dahl, who see decades of potential wrapped up in art left behind, the proper care and development of a loved one’s intellectual property is everything.

Maintaining artistic integrity in posthumous projects takes a tremendous amount of acumen and finesse on the part of an heir. Getting it right also requires the ability to exploit disjointed levels of international copyright and trademark laws.

Roald Dahl’s archives are open to the public at the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire, just outside London.

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