My tour through Ulysses was led by a deft literary guide, a full professor who preferred his students to his study, a rare, rare breed, indeed. He took us by the hand (and some us by the nose) as we sometimes walked, often plodded, occasionally skipped through his favorite book in all the world. And those who could afford the annual pilgrimage to Dublin, he happily ushered through the streets and narrows that his beloved Bloom paced.
As I have done each June 16 since taking Marty N.’s seminar on James Joyce, today I pulled down my tattered copy of the tome and reread a paragraph here, a margin note there, assorted slips of paper quoting Marty, and Chapter 18 in its entirety. Our discussion of “the ‘Yes’ chapter,” all those years ago, was prefaced by a screening of Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan’s performance of Molly Bloom’s monologue. The stunned silence that followed the film’s end was recalled to me when I read this bit in the Times Literary Supplement several years ago:
This is particularly true of Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy, which may end on a “Yes” but is tragic in its implications. Here is a wakeful woman, beside her sleeping husband, left with nobody to talk to but herself. After an afternoon assignation with her lover, she feels compelled to m-st-rb-te repeatedly in the bed, because her visitor took all the pleasure for himself. The blank pieces of paper which she posts to herself seem like emblems of her lonely condition, just as her “yes” seems a desperate tactic to convince herself that life is better than it is. When the Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan performed the monologue in this way on an American campus in the 1980s, some elderly professors handed back their membership cards to the Joyce Association in disgust at her alleged blasphemy against a sacred text.
Not Marty. Like us, he was staggered by Flanagan’s interpretation. Oh, what a discussion followed.
Yes, it’s Bloomsday again. The twenty-third that I’ve marked. I grow old.*
You know, reading Joyce, hell, reading any of the “heavier” books, requires a time-space that few of us willingly make. Oh, the children, we chide. Ah, work, we moan. Oh, dear, the chores, the errands, the lawn, the home-improvement projects. We toss the books aside in dismay because they are no easier now than they were when well meaning English teachers and professors pressed them on us in our teens and early twenties.
Bulletin! They were never meant to be “easy.”
* From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Do you want me “to bring it all home”? Okay. Modernists Eliot and Joyce (and Ezra Pound) influenced, nay, arguably shaped twentieth-century literature. In a 1922 review, Eliot described Joyce’s Ulysses as “the most important expression which the present age has found.” It’s no small coincidence that Eliot identified the “mythical method” in Joyce’s work: “The Waste Land” was meant to be read as a mythic quest, too.
Hence, it is not remarkable that a discussion of Joyce might remind me that “I grow old… I grow old…” and that growing old in that meter might call to mind Eliot.
Which reminds me of this, from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye:
“‘I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ What does that mean, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Not a bloody thing. It just sounds good.”
He smiled. “That is from the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ Here’s another one. ‘In the room women come and go/Talking of Michael Angelo.’ Does that suggest anything to you, sir?”
“Yeah — it suggests to me that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”
“My sentiments exactly, sir. Nonetheless I admire T. S. Eliot very much.”
“Did you say, ‘nonetheless’?”
Also from The Long Goodbye:
I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.
The company of books is unimaginably rich, and the reading life is rife with leaps and connections, links and consolations.