Bill and I have finally completed our major intellectual undertaking of the year. To be entirely accurate, I have. Bill fell away after six lengthy chapters. (There were eighteen all told.) I speak, of course, of getting through Ulysses, that 644 page behemoth of a book in which James Joyce commemorated forever June 16, 1904 in the lives of three Dubliners — Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly. We did not undertake this effort alone. There was an eight-week class, and a wonderful professor, and lots of support from extracurricular sources enumerated in some detail in a previous post about Bloom defecating in his outhouse.
But did I really read all clotted 644 pages carefully, scout’s honor? Um, no. However, where I skimmed, I skimmed judiciously, certainly putting in even more time than I had anticipated. And as it has now clogged up two whole months of my life, if I ever pick up that book again, which I very well may, it won’t be to read it from cover to cover. Once you know the lay of the land, so to speak (as I do by now), you can dip in and out where it pleases you.
So what will I remember after all this labor? The same passage I remembered after I read it at twenty: Molly Bloom’s memory of the day sixteen years earlier when Leopold proposed to her on Howth’s head above Dublin and they made love for the first time. She was eighteen, he was twenty-two. (It’s the final passage in the forty pages of stream of consciousness which constitutes the last chapter of the book.)
Does this mean I haven’t matured at all in sixty-three years? Perhaps. But I like to think I will remember that last part of Molly’s soliloquy now, together with Bloom’s memory of the same event, not because it’s sexy (my reason at twenty) — but because that day on Howth’s head remains the dearest of memories for both husband and wife at the close of the book, although it is now far in the past and their marriage is fraught with current and unresolved difficulties.
It may be that as a lady getting on in life I am more optimistic than a younger person might be about the power of dear memories to hold people together. But there it is. I am that lady. Also — point for my side — Molly ends with a single word: Yes. Which has to count for something.
Leopold’s memory comes while he’s having lunch: a gorgonzola cheese sandwich with mustard, cut in strips, and a glass of burgundy wine:
Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines fain brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet-sour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nanny goat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.
Many pages later, Molly’s memory comes in bed, in the wee hours of morning, as she reviews her day, her life, her youth [she feels old at 34]:
….the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of…[here Molly considers her boyfriends and kisses and experiences in Gibraltar, where she grew up] ….and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
I wish us all such memories, when our hearts were going like mad.