The Cats of Copenhagen: Delightful Recently Discovered Children’s Story by James Joyce
By Maria Popova
As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, I have long admired The Cat and the Devil — the charming 1965 children’s book based on a 1936 letter James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941) had written to his most beloved audience: his grandson Stephen. So imagine my delight at the news of a posthumous Joyce children’s release, The Cats of Copenhagen (public library) — a never-before-published short story also based on a letter to Stephen.
In August 1936, Joyce mailed his grandson “a little cat filled with sweets” — a sort of candy mule designed to outwit Stephen’s parents. “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen,” Joyce wrote Stephen from Denmark a month later in a wonderfully playful, mischievous letter that unfolded into a whimsical tale. The short story, illustrated by Casey Sorrow in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey and beautifully typeset by book artist Michael Caine, was only recently rediscovered and makes an offbeat but characteristically masterful addition to Joyce’s well-known body of work.
The preface speaks to Joyce’s love of cats, a kind of bonding agent for him and his grandson — because, after all, what great writer doesn’t know the creative power of a cat:
Exquisite, minuscule, and with strong, almost anarchic subtext, The Cats of Copenhagen is a slightly younger twin sister to The Cat and the Devil, the only other known example of James Joyce’s writing a story for young children. Both works, written within a few weeks of each other, are in letters posted to stephen James Joyce, his only grandchild. Clearly, cats were a common currency between them: cats, and their common need to have somebody around to help them cross the road.
Like many otherwise sensible people, James Joyce detested, even loathed, dogs; but he thought the world of cats. In the first chapter of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom appears, the very first conversation is between a hungry feline and a kind-hearted Bloom.
The Cats of Copenhagen is an absolute treat — highly recommended.
Published November 2, 2012