James Joyce is famous for his gifts as a poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist. In fact, in 2004 Joyceans everywhere will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of one of the most memorable walks in literature -- the meanderings through Dublin of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedelus in Joyce's novel, Ulysses.
Many of Joyce's works are full of stories of initiation and growth -- from Dubliners to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to Ulysses to Finnegan's Wake. And some of his most famous characters are young people poised on the threshold of adulthood, Buck Mulligan, Milly Bloom, and of course Stephen.
But perhaps you would be surprised to know that Joyce also wrote a children's book, The Cat and the Devil. The story first appeared in an August 10, 1936 letter that Joyce wrote to his grandson, Stephen.1Like any great storyteller he sets his grandson up with a tease. "My dear Stevie: I sent you a little cat filled with sweets but perhaps you do not know the story about the cat of Beaugency?" Joyce then relates a story about a town that has no bridge spanning its river. The townspeople crossed by boat because they could not build a bridge or pay to have one built. The innovative and vain Lord Mayor strikes a bargain with the devil to construct the bridge in one night. The devil's only requested compensation is the first person that walks over the bridge. The next morning the beautiful bridge spans the river, but the people are afraid to cross it because they see the devil waiting on the other side. The lord mayor arrives with much fanfare wearing his scarlet robe and gold chains armed with a bucket of water in one hand and a cat under the other arm.
Inevitably, the cat plays with the mayor's golden chains. He drops the cat and pours water over him. The cat runs over the bridge into the arms of the devil. The outwitted angry devil rebukes the town, in very bad French, no less, by calling them all cats. But the townspeople didn't mind, they were too busy strolling across their beautiful new bridge filled with children playing.
The Cat and the Devil is a tour-de-force of storytelling; it's available as an illustrated picture book; and it's the kind of tale that only a grandfather like James Joyce could pull off.
Joyce, James. The Cat and the Devil. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
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Copyright 2004 © Lauren Brosnihan
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