Nother dying

In Brief

In Proteus Stephen recalls how his stay in Paris was interrupted by the arrival of "a blue French telegram, curiosity to show: / — Nother dying come home father." All editions of Ulysses before 1984 have "Mother," but Hans Walter Gabler's "synoptic" edition of that year restores the word that Joyce wrote in the so-called Rosenbach manuscript. An error in a telegram that turned his mother into just "another" person dying, or perhaps into "no mother," would indeed make it something to show.

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"Nother" is one of many changes in the Gabler text applauded by Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann. When he reviewed the new edition in the 15 June 1986 issue of the New York Times, Ellmann wrote, "It appears that the famous telegram from Simon Dedalus to Stephen did not read when delivered to him in Paris, 'Mother dying come home father,' but 'Nother dying come home father.' Hence it was, as Stephen recalls, a 'curiosity to show.' The typesetters could not believe their eyes in this instance, nor in another when the black horn fan held by the 'whoremistress' Bella Cohen asks, 'Have you forgotten me?' and is answered, 'Nes. Yo.' They changed it to 'Yes. No."'

Although Ellmann's biography asserts that on 10 April 1903 Joyce received a telegram at his Parisian hotel reading "MOTHER DYING COME HOME FATHER" (128), and others have referred to it as an actual occurrence, there seems to be no hard evidence that such a telegram (with either spelling) was ever sent. Gabler bases his reading on the manuscript and the successive proofs for the first edition preserved at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. In a personal communication, he observes, “I am not aware that, outside the fiction of Ulysses, there is material evidence that James Joyce during his sojurn in Paris received such a telegram. Richard Ellmann may nonetheless not be far off the mark when he at this point reconstructs James Joyce’s biography from the fiction James Joyce wrote about Stephen Dedalus—but what he, Ellmann, says is an extrapolation from the fiction.”

Real or imagined, it is no wonder that Joyce, so attentive to the quirks of language, would refer to the telegram as a "curiosity." The word calls to mind Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848, father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli), a multi-volume and very popular work that highlights the eccentric contents and backstories of supposedly serious books of the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries. It may be another of Stephen Dedalus’s self-deprecating moments in Proteus that he sees himself ending up as an anecdote in a D’Israeli-like collection, remembered for all the wrong reasons. Truth being stranger than fiction, Joyce does appear in a modern-day Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland (Penguin, 2009).

Critics have pointed out the irony of Joyce deliberately inserting typos into a work that is infamous for its manuscript corruptions. John Noel Turner, in "Miles of Porches of Ears," JJQ 36 (1999): 979-84, notes that the mistakes of typesetters and others have tended to blur Joyce’s “intentional obscurities.” Details like Bloom's "high grade ha" must be meant to spark reflection about the production and reproduction of words. Beyond what Joyce may be saying about language, he clearly embraced the comic potential of errors. In Lotus Eaters Bloom too receives a letter with a misspelling ("that other world"), and in Eumaeus he finds that the Evening Telegraph has spelled his name "L. Boom.”

Doug Pope 2018
"Nother," on the fifth line of a page of Proteus in the Rosenbach manuscript of Ulysses, held in the Rosenbach Foundation, Philadelphia. Source: James Joyce Ulysses: A Facsimile of the Manuscript (Octagon, 1975).