March 17, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“I sent you a little cat filled with sweets a few days ago but perhaps you do not know the story about the cat of Beaugency,” begins James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil, first published in 1965. If you were lucky enough to get your hands on this book as a child, you know that the illustrations, by Richard Erdoes, haunt your nightmares for years, and that it’s quite impossible ever to think of James Joyce without visualizing the Mephistophilean entity pictured therein.
The story is based on an old French folktale: the desperate mayor of Beaugency makes a deal with the devil in order to get a bridge across the Loire. In exchange for the supernatural structure, the devil may claim the soul of whoever crosses it first. In the event, the townspeople foil the plot by sending over a hapless cat instead, and in the grand tradition of diabolical law, the devil is forced to abide by their reading of the contract.
James Joyce now has a second children’s book in print. The Cats of Copenhagen, published in 2012 by Dublin’s Ithys Press, is, like its companion story, based on a letter the writer sent his young grandson, Stephen. Both are playful, weird, lyrical, and, yes, completely straightforward. That said, in the opinion of some grownups, the books are not without subtext. As Anastasia Herbert, publisher of The Cats of Copenhagen, told the Guardian,
In early August 1936, Joyce had sent his grandson ‘a little cat filled with sweets’—a kind of Trojan cat to outwit the grown-ups. A few weeks later, while in Copenhagen and probably after hunting for another fine gift, Joyce penned ‘Cats’, which begins: ‘Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen.’ Surely there were cats in Copenhagen! But perhaps not secretly delicious ones. And so the story proceeds to describe a Copenhagen in which things are not what they seem … For an adult reader (and no doubt for a very clever child) ‘Cats’ reads as an anti-establishment text, critical of fat-cats and some authority figures, and it champions the exercise of common sense, individuality and free will.
According to Maria Popova, Joyce was a passionate cat lover, and despised dogs in equal measure. Which makes it a bit strange that he would sacrifice his cat hero’s soul to the devil, but then, as we know, Joyce held an unromantic view of love. (“Love [understood as the desire of good for another] is in fact so unnatural a phenomenon that it can scarcely repeat itself, the soul being unable to become virgin again and not having energy enough to cast itself out again into the ocean of another’s soul.”) Besides, the Joycean devil seems happy enough with his bargain, a cat making for better companionship than a soul—and one presumes he has plenty of souls.
Here, in honor of the day, is a cat who looks like James Joyce.