Episode 1, Cayuga Lake.
June 16, 2000. Wet grass, muddy edge, quiet lake lapping the morning. It’s Bloomsday, let’s read Joyce’s Ulysses aloud. Maybe you’ve been in a situation like this before, where boys gather and you join in? I had never read the book. He began.
Episode 2, Agony Aunt
Others came to read with us, which made the prospect of getting through the day possible. They all took turns reading, drinking whiskey and drying their wings in the sun. Dear Twenty-Something Graduate Student in Ithaca, if it sounds like someone stepping out of a cocoon, using words for the first time as if he invented language itself, you can abandon the book. Can, should, should have.
Episode 3, Lost in the Funhouse
After about two hours, everyone left. How are we going to get through 700 pages on our own? In Dublin, the event lasts more than 18 hours. Undaunted, he read on and on and when can I read a chapter? Not yet, he insists. You can’t read until the end. You will read the Molly chapter. Why? Because you’re a woman.
Episode 4, Molly in Her Island Bed
We drive past Victorian houses divided into several small apartments, and colorful bungalows with compost heaps out back. In his apartment, he starts reading again. I want to close my eyes and sleep, but instead I meet Molly waking up in bed. Joyce called this episode “Calypso” (Homer’s Odyssey is a model for the novel). Suzanne Vega’s voice sings in my head: My name is Calypso / And I have lived alone / I live on an island / And I waken to the dawn. Yes, this might work. If Molly is like Calypso, then maybe I too could save a drowning thing, teach him how to see himself in the sea without being swallowed, and then give him back to the water.
Episode 5, Leftovers
I warm up last night’s soup for lunch: miso, black seaweed, old bay, soy sauce, noodles and tofu. He wasn’t a good cook. It would take hours and a manic episode for him to make anything. But his wild stories went into the soup and it always tasted good.
Episode 6, Hades Underwater
They come down with desire strapped to their backs for breathing. Some can’t understand how sunlight moves through water without getting wet. Others find the surface reversed and beat the bottom of the ocean with their fists. Wings work differently down here: coming together between thought and movement, everything sounds like blood rushing.
Episode 7, Surfacing
I lost interest in the novel right around the time Virginia Woolf did. Her image proudly hung above my bed freshman year in college: side profile, low, loose bun, long neck, wide eyes looking off into the distance. Woolf proclaimed Ulysses “a memorable catastrophe.” She said, “The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious.” Coming up for air as he kept reading, her lines would have helped me break the surface. Woolf put rocks in her pockets before she drowned.
Episodes 8-15, Lacuna
The heat hangs thick and heavy, no air conditioning in June. Second floor open windows and one pane broken where he pushed his hand through to catch her before she left for New Orleans. I think he’s skipping parts of the novel. Give me the book. Let me read a chapter. Of course Jason sailed the Argos safely through these rocks instead of facing Scylla & Charybdis: Medea was on board. Odysseus had seven years with Calypso and how many children? Molly had twenty-five lovers, well, then she did; Odysseus’s wife Penelope had none. I was Circe, wand at the ready, having already shown several men they were pigs. In their stories, seeds sprout into fully grown men and pregnancy is a metaphor for the evolution of the English language.
Episodes 16-18, Recognition Scene
I sit on the hardwood floor with the book finally in my hands. The low sun glows and the window’s shadow frames our leavings: crumpled white shirt, fake yellow flowers, black sharpie, open notebook, and the smell of stale cigarettes. He lies down on a frameless mattress.
I read Molly: “Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs [breathe] since the CITY ARMS hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting [breathe] for that old faggot Mrs Riordan [what? breathe] that he thought he had a great leg of [a what? breathe] and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself [pause to quickly reread and then go on] and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit [breathe] telling me all her ailments…”
He lifts his head and says, you’re not reading it right. Start over.
Molly’s soliloquy is eight sentences comprising over twenty-four thousand words. I listened and assented and understood and made excuses and dinner and ignored and praised and made myself small and waited all day for my turn to speak. I’m not starting over. I kept reading, defiantly stumbling over her words and trying to make sense of her voice.
I heard Molly’s voice more than ten years later: Kate Bush sings Molly’s soliloquy in the song “Flower of the Mountain” (Director’s Cut, 2011). The song was originally released as the title track on The Sensual World (1989) with different lyrics because the Joyce estate refused to grant Bush permission to use material from Ulysses. Over twenty years later, the Joyce estate finally granted Bush’s request and she re-recorded the song with Molly’s words.
Remembering when her husband proposed to her sixteen years earlier, Kate as Molly sings:
I was a Flower of the mountain yes
When I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used
Or shall I wear red, yes
And how he kissed me under the moorish wall
And I thought well, as well him as another.
Bush’s lush voice emphasizes a confident Molly who uses her sexuality to urge Leopold Bloom to propose marriage. Bush liberates Molly and imagines her outside the book in the song’s refrain (which doesn’t appear in the novel): Stepping out off the page into the sensual world.
But sitting on the bedroom floor reading Molly, she was hard to see even on the page, trapped in a way her husband never would be. Joyce let her speak in the end to no one.
I kept reading Molly’s words aloud and he didn’t say anything. After another page, I looked up and he was asleep. I closed the book and set it down on the floor next to the bed. The door was open and just beyond were the stairs down to the porch.
Out on the street below I thought, well, as well another as him.
Sarah Ahrens: bully, bull, bull. Sarah tweets @sarah_ahrens1.
Lead image: Cosimo Miorelli