Skip to main content

The Cats of Copenhagen - James Joyce

The Cats of Copenhagen

James Joyce
Casey Sorrow illustrator (Scribner edition 2012, hardcover) 26 pages $16.99 cover price

As I've mentioned before, the delightful problem or problematic delight in writing about a children's book is that the review is inevitably longer than the book itself. At least one can trump the author in that one minor suit. And that is the only way I can claim success over James Joyce outside of, you know, still being alive although time inevitably will lead to me racing forward to meet him in the past so there goes that advantage too.

I am hoping that the sight of the name James Joyce did not render you into shuddering fear as the horror, the horror of those University English final exams come haunting back like bats soaring down through a chimney with the flue cap left carelessly open. He's actually a delightful, even whimsical writer, once one clears away the acidic academic mist that tears the eye when he is turned into a rubbery biology class frog and dissected into meaningless bits and pieces.

No, I always liked the old boy. I started reading his work at the place where I suggest you start too – although as I think of it The Cats of Copenhagen isn't a bad place to start either. It's an important point with Hall of Fame class writers you know; should a new reader start with the first work when the likely deceased author was just wobbling around on talented foal legs before running past the rest in thoroughbred races, or should you skip past a few novels and head right for the greatest hits? (This by the way is the delight of reviewing Joyce's children's book – in order to fill paragraphs, I get to stretch out a bit. We will get to the book, promise.)

When I spoke with Charles Foran, author of The Life and Times of Mordecai Richler, the single best literary biography I have ever had the pleasure to read, we had this exact same polite argument. Charlie felt a new reader of Richler should head straight to Barney's Version, Richler's last novel. I said that the summation misses the fun of the argument (well, I didn't phrase it that well at the time, but let's pretend I did). I thought that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was a better starting point – all that youthful energy and optimism, with the first streams of enlightened cynicism that made his voice memorable.

With Joyce, it was the opening lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that did it for me. Do you remember them? Have you read them? As a reminder or as a here goes, here goes:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming
down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road
met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a
glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne
lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put
on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

Looking back at it now, the man was born to be a children's writer as even in adulthood he was still connected to that alchemic blend of poetry and unblemished keen observation that is the scientific method of the child. We all start out observing (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling) with a complete lack of prejudice and transform those perceptions into imaginative forms of fantasy and imaginative meaning – then we go to school and the living shit gets kicked out of all that. No no, you see what we say you should see and you shall frame your observations into socially proper forms. Philip Larkin was absolutely correct when he wrote, 'they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad' but Mum and Dad wouldn't be so fucked up if it wasn't for Miss Grisly back in Grade One.

I have no idea who James Joyce's personal Miss Grisly was, but thank heaven she was lousy at her job. Even when Joyce eventually encountered and described in let's-say – fictional terms that most glorious of whores, Molly Bloom in Ulysses, he did so with that same childish perspective: it exists, therefore it must be beautiful.

And so, to the present case, when Joyce at age 54 found his way to Denmark he retained all that and chose to share his whimsy with his grandson Stephen. The result was The Cats of Copenhagen, unseen by the greater world until 2006 when it was found in a trunk of correspondence, manuscripts and I dare say a Bill Owing or two donated by one Hans E. Jahnke (Joyce's great-stepson) to the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. If the curator said anything other – in French, German, or English -than Holy Shit then the man definitely didn't know his job.

In its slim selection of words (I didn't bother counting but I'll give you a buck for every one over 500) there is … well … everything a child needs to know. Look kid, you may love cats, but not everyone does. You may be taught to respect policemen, but a lot of them are lazy buggers who can't be bothered to get out of bed. And those red-jacketed message deliverers, the proletaraiat who you're supposed to ignore; the whole system falls apart without them.

Oh sure, $16.99 is a lot to spend on a book this slight. But your child, or you, will learn that the author's voice is a friendly voice, one that seeks to protect as well as inform. James Joyce: he won't fuck you up.

Be seeing you.


Popular posts from this blog

The Blocks by Karl Parkinson

The Blocks

Karl Parkinson (New Binary Press 2016, Trade Paperback) 274 pages, cover price N/A

There's a tremendous irony in our lives you know, and it is one as large and predominant as the oxygen we breathe yet equally as invisible, equally ignored; an irony as imperceptible as the blood within our veins that itself only comes to our notice when the skin breaks and the blood trickles free before we hide the wound with a bandage and secure the blood back where it belongs. That irony is this: Our most basic desire, expressed in equal parts of hope and fear, is that we want to continue to live. And why? Because we want our individual lives to be different than what they are.
Karl Parkinson's first novel, The Blocks is a mad, tragic, stylish and daring exploration into that self-same need to survive and yet to change. The Blocks of the title themselves are neither those of the prison nor a child's alphabet; at least not literally although the reader may rightly infer those meta…

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan (Knopf Canada edition 2016, Hard Cover) 197 pages, $29.95 cover price
We have to talk about the concept first. Oh I had a long and lively internal debate about it, you can be sure of that. After all, all books have concepts that we accept without too much fuss – talking animals, sentient corpses, thought-filled trees, the whole Harrod's bought stuffed menagerie of Winnie the Pooh carrying on like a picnic gathering of the British Women's Institute with special invited guests from the Royal Society of St George – we accept all of those without too much fuss. I've even admitted to sniffing up a tear or two over The Brave Little Toaster, so if one can be moved by a bloody kitchen appliance then why not a sentient foetus as the central character of Ian McEwan's Nutshell?It probably won't surprise you that I have a theory to go with that, slightly more substantial than an amuse-bouche if not quite a meal in itself. My thinking is that we go with the ta…

White and Red Cherries by Tanja Tuma

White and Red Cherries: A Slovenian Civil War Novel

Tanja Tuma (Self-published 2016, Trade paperback) 301 pages with glossary and bibliography, cover price n/a
It dawned on me like a thunder strikes a tree: this petite young girl embodies a mission, her reason to exist. Every one of us embodies his mission by what he does. We are what we do. Not chemical elements, but our deeds define our being. We are neither the faith we trust in God, nor the love we give and take. The least of what we are is the genetic code we get from our parents, which in turn lives on in our descendants. No. We are what we do at this moment in this bloody world. Our deeds can defy eternity. They can mirror our will and freedom forever. Those words are thoughts by the elderly Martin, born during the Second World War and raised by the partisan heroine Valeria Batič as her son, when his natural mother Ada quite literally tossed her baby from a train window to Valeria as the train pulled out for Vienna. Ada you see w…