the Cat and the Devil

I first read James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil just a week or so ago. Now I hear there is another JJ cat book: The Cats of Copenhagen. And it’s in the news too.

The Zurich James Joyce Foundation has Joyce’s letter to his grandson where he tells the story. It says it “never permitted, tolerated, condoned or connived at this publication, and it rigidly dissociates itself from it.”

The publishers, Ithys, have responded that Joyce’s work is now in the public domain. But this is disputed by the foundation, who say that unpublished material is still in copyright. So this may be your only chance, at a mere £1200, to buy a copy of this story.

As for The Cat and the Devil, in my French copy illustrated by Roger Blachon, it’s about a small village on the Loire called Beaujency. It could do with a bridge over the Loire, but hasn’t got the money to build one. The Devil reads about it in the papers and decides to help:

Here is the letter, which I find here, that Joyce wrote to his grandson:

My dear Stevie,
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.

Beaugency is a tiny old town on the bank of Loire, France’s longest river. It is also a very wide river, for France at least. At Beaugency it is so wide that if you wanted to cross it from one bank to the other you would have to take at least one thousand steps. Long ago the people of Beaugency, when they wanted to cross it, had to go in a boat for there was no bridge. And they could not make one for themselves or pay anybody else to make one. So what were they to do?

The devil, who is always reading the newspapers, heard about this sad state of theirs so he dressed himself and came to call on the lord mayor of Beaugency, who was named Monsieur Alfred Byrne. This lord mayor was very fond of dressing himself too. He wore a scarlet robe and always had a great golden chain round his neck even when he was fast asleep in bed with his knees in his mouth.

The devil told the lord mayor what he had read in the newspaper and said he could make a bridge for the people of Beaugency so that they could cross the river as often as they wished. He said he could make a bridge as good as ever was made, and make it in one single night.

The lord mayor asked him how much money he wanted for making such a bridge. No money at all, said the devil, all I ask is that the first person who crosses the bridge shall belong to me. Good, said the lord mayor.

The night came down, all the people in Beaugency went to bed and slept. The morning came. And when they put their heads out of their windows they cried: O Loire, what a fine bridge! For they saw a fine strong stone bridge thrown across the wide river.

All the people ran down to the head of the bridge and looked across it. There was the devil, standing at the other side of the bridge, waiting for the first person who should cross it. But nobody dared to cross it for fear of the devil. Then there was the sound of bugles – that was a sign for the people to be silent – and the lord mayor M. Alfred Byrne appeared in his great scarlet robe and wearing his heavy golden chain round his neck. He had a bucket of water in one hand and under his arm – the other arm – he carried a cat.

The devil stopped dancing when he saw him from the other side of the bridge and put up his long spyglass. All the people whispered to one another and the cat looked up at the lord mayor because in the town of Beaugency it was allowed that a cat should look at a lord mayor. When he was tired of looking at the lord mayor (because even a cat gets tired of looking at a lord mayor) he began to play with the lord mayor’s heavy golden chain.

When the lord mayor came to the head of the bridge every man held his breath and every woman held her tongue. The lord mayor put the cat down on the bridge and, quick as a thought, splash! he emptied the whole bucket of water over it.

The cat who was now between the devil and the bucket of water made up his mind quite as quickly and ran with his ears back across the bridge and into the devil’s arms.

The devil was as angry as the devil himself. Messieurs les Balgentiens, he shouted across the bridge, vous n’ etes pas de belles gens du tout! Vous n’ ete que des chats!*

And he said to the cat: Viens ici, mon petit chat! Tu as peur, mon petit chou-chat! Viens ici, le diable t’ emporte! On va se chauffer tous les deuex.** And off he went with the cat.

And since that time the people of that town are called le chats de Beaugency.***

But the bridge is there still and there are boys walking and riding and playing upon it.

I hope you will like this story.


P.S. The devil mostly speaks a language of his own called Bellsybabble which he makes up himself as he goes along but when he is very angry he can speak quite bad French very well, though some who have heard him, say that he has a strong Dublin accent.

*You people of Beaugency. From this time on you will be called the people with the soul of a cat! (Corrupted French).

**Come here, my pussy cat. Don’t fear me, my pussy cat. Are you cold, my pussy cat? Come, come, the devil will take you to hell, O.K.? There we will feel warm soon. (Corrupted French).

*** The cats of Beaugency. (Corrupted French).

The story was also published in 1965 with illustrations by Gerald Rose (I’d like to have this one – Gerald Rose beautifully illustrated a lot of books that I only just remember reading as a child):

and in a 1964 edition with pictures by Richard Erdoes:

You can see more on We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie .

It’s attracted a lot of illustrators, this tale. Here’s another French adaptation, this time illustrated by Jean-Jacques Corre:

As for the Cats of Copenhagon, you may never get to see much more of it than this:

James Joyce's 'The Cats of Copenhagen' (Ithys Press, 2012) Poster


1 Comment »

  1. Jil Casey said

    Lot’s of good stuff here – I like Gerald Rose too, only have one of his books right now.

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