“I recognize Forio’s harbor,” the professor said. “But what is this?”
“Ulysses Rock,” I replied. “It’s on the other side of Punta Imperatore. I took it on one of my long boat rides.”
“They’re evocative. I like them very much.”
“They’re yours if you like. I can always print out more copies.”
“Are you sure?”
He studied the photos for a while, then looked at me.
“What?” I said.
“I just got an idea.”
“My good friend Neil Harris at The American Scholar has been hounding me about doing an essay for them. On writing, and the creative process.”
“Have you ever written a fictional story to order?”
“Like an assignment?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Would you be willing to try?”
I knew exactly what that clever fellow was up to. No doubt about it. He was deeply concerned about my continued mooning about Vittoria’s troubles. He figured a challenge would distract me from melancholy, morbid thoughts.
“Why not?” I said. “At the moment I haven’t anything better to do.”
“Excellent, lad. Excellent! Now here’s my idea. Use these two photos as a starting point, a springboard, as it were. Create a story that incorporates both the harbor and that jagged rock.”
“But I already have. A story about my recent boat ride.”
“Well, all right, then. Let’s throw in a different twist. I’ve got it. A story about ME taking a boat ride. How about that?”
“Yes. I’ll be flattered. Also acutely curious to see what comes out of the exercise. We can have a discussion about it afterward. What do you say?”
“Are you giving me a deadline?”
“This doesn’t have to be very long, so how about…tomorrow?”
“Five PM. Or, as the natives say, seventeen hundred.”
“I’ll expect you then.”
* * *
The Red Boat
The professor said he wanted a wooden boat, that one over there, painted red inside. The man replied it was not for rent. Perhaps one of these rubber pontoon outboards would be better. Less likely to be damaged on underwater rocks. But the professor insisted. He'd be willing to pay extra. Or leave a large deposit.
"Va bene," the man finally said.
The young girl sat forward; the professor was at the stern, hand on the rudder. They moved slowly out of Forio's harbor and headed south, toward Punta Imperatore.
"You will do well in graduate school," he said.
"I'm glad you think so," she replied, not turning around.
"And you will love Rome."
"I already do."
The sea was calm, and extraordinarily clear. Silver, red and yellow fish were bright in the water. Soon they came near a craggy rock, about a kilometer from the promontory.
"Did you know they call this Ulysses Rock?" the professor said.
"Yes, that's what's on the map they sell to the tourists. But over the centuries people have arbitrarily given it other names."
"So what would you call it, then?"
He thought for a moment. "Virginia's Shroud."
"You must have some obscure academic reason. Don't you?"
"Yes. As you should know, Virginia Woolf committed suicide by jumping into a river with rocks in the pockets of her dress."
The girl took a small camera from her straw bag, and aimed it at the jagged formation. "Something to remember you by," she said.
The professor shut off the engine. The boat gently rocked in silence.
"Virginia said of Joyce's Ulysses that it was underbred. The work of a self-taught working man. A queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples."
The girl turned. "Which makes you angry."
"Why do you think that?"
"Just a guess."
"There are always connections to be found, if you look carefully enough. For instance, when you took a picture of the rock a moment ago I thought again of Virginia. Did you know she was also a photographer?"
"No, I did not know that."
"She owned a vest pocket Kodak and used it frequently. Taking pictures ran in the family. As a matter of fact, Woolf's great aunt was the famous Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Virginia's collection of photo albums contain unusual and sometimes bizarre visual sequences. Somebody said that they represent the novelist's obsessive identification with her fantasmatic mother. Now, isn't that an interesting word?
The girl crossed her arms and looked out at the ill-defined azure horizon.
"Did you know that you talk too much?"
* * *
“Bravo!” The professor said.
“I didn’t mean to offend you. You know perfectly well I don’t think you talk too much.”
“Yes, of course, no offense taken. This is simpy marvelous.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
“Now, I’m curious about a few things. Do you mind if we discuss this further?”
“Not at all. Let’s do.”
We spent an hour turning the James Joyce and Virginia Woolf issue this way and that. He said the troubled woman mistook class distinctions for literary criticism, and of course she was not alone in this regard. There also was George Moore, who said, “Joyce, Joyce, why he’s a nobody—from the Dublin docks, no family, no breeding.”
And so on.
The professor—bless his heart—did an excellent job taking my mind off Vittoria. But the moment he left I went right back to gloomy, morbid and angry thoughts of this distressing situation. It goes on and on, and doesn’t get any better. It’s entirely too much to expect that this story will have a happy ending.
And it’s utterly ridiculous to ask: Why?