Joyce probably assumed that as a doctor she had much knowledge of the world, but in fact during her medical course her fellow students and professors had cosseted her as one of the first women students, and at the end of it she fell ill; so she was inexperienced and rather startled by the sexual overtures which Joyce soon made. She was fascinated by his mind, he indifferent as she felt to hers. When she would not agree, he asked her to correspond with him, and to use for the purpose the poste restante in Zurich. (Bloom also uses the poste restante in his clandestine correspondence with Martha Clifford.) Dr. Kaempffer reluctantly said no; she was put off by the idea of exchanging letters in secret.
Still, he occupied her thoughts, and she opened with interest the two letters he sent to her. Molly Bloom recalls how Bloom “wrote me that letter with all those words in it,” and in A Portrait of the Artist Joyce depicts Stephen Dedalus’s act of writing obscene letters and leaving them about in the hope that some girl will find them. With Gertrude Kaempffer Joyce indulged a kindred proclivity. Their correspondence seemed like Stephen’s to be, though it was not, outside space and time. He said he loved her, and made clear that his love was physical. He hoped she had the same feelings. He said he wished to be entirely straightforward, and to leave to her the decision about intimacy.
Then, perhaps to excite her as well as himself, he described in his fastidious handwriting his first sexual experience. It had occurred when he was fourteen. He was walking with the family nanny near some woods when she asked him to look the other way. He did so, and heard the sound of liquid splashing on the ground. Joyce used the word “piss,” with which the young doctor was unfamiliar. The sound aroused him. “I jiggled furiously,” he wrote. She did not understand this phrase either, but on later inquiry was told by someone that it was a kind of Scottish dance.
In Finnegans Wake the principal character, Earwicker, is accused of having performed the same act opposite two micturating girls:
Slander, let it lie its flattest, has never been able to convict our good and great and no ordinary…Ear-wicker, that homogenius man, as a pious author called him, of any graver impropriety than that…of having behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maid-servants in the swoolth of the rushy hollow whither…dame nature in all innocence and spontaneously and about the same hour of the eventide sent them both….
Joyce evidently recognized a farcical shamefulness in his own behavior. He confided in one of his letters to Gertrude Kaempffer another frailty: he found it particularly provocative when lying with a woman, he said, to be afraid of being discovered.
Gertrude Kaempffer did not regard these sentiments as fetching, and perhaps they were written more to indulge his own fantasy than in the hope of sharing it with her. She tore up the letters, in case anyone should read them, and did not reply. They would not meet again until a year later when, on her way to visit friends in Zurich, she caught sight in a public place of an unhappy-looking, emaciated man, and moved closer to see if it could be Joyce. He suddenly turned around, recognized her and greeted her warmly, and invited her to a café. She could not go, having an appointment. Might she not come to the hotel later for a drink? Foreseeing embarrassment, she refused again. Joyce looked pained, shook hands, and said goodbye.
All that survived of this abortive idyll was a recollection of having been aroused by a woman named Gertrude. At least he could draw one thing from it—the name of the young woman over whom Bloom excites himself in the “Nausicaa” episode—Gerty. As he said in Giacomo Joyce, “Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?”
He needed more hints for the episode than the aloof Dr. Kaempffer provided, and the second of his forays occurred some months after the first, this time in Zurich. We have known something of this affair ever since Professor Heinrich Straumann of the University of Zurich obtained, just after the Second World War, the love letters Joyce wrote during it. More recently some details have come to light that make the context clearer. One day in 1918 Joyce looked out of a window in his flat and happened to see, in a flat in the next building, a young woman pulling a toilet chain. It was a scene that, as we have observed, had distinct erotic implications for him. He contrived to speak to this young woman, whose name was Marthe Fleischmann, on the street. She had a limp, and he would give the same limp to Gerty MacDowell in the “Nausicaa” episode. He stared at her with amazement as if they had met before, and was later to tell her that she looked exactly like a young woman he had seen many years before on the Dublin strand. Marthe Fleischmann seems to have coyly declined this gambit.
How far his feelings derived from the needs of his novel, and how far the novel from his amorous needs, were questions he did not have to answer. As he had written his brother thirteen years before, “There cannot be any substitute for the individual passion as the motive power of everything—art and philosophy included.” Joyce kept watching for Marthe Fleischmann, and she, far from ignoring his attentions, closed the shutters of her windows. He wrote her an ardent letter in French, in a disguised handwriting, marked especially by his use of Greek e‘s. He would have Mrs. Yelverton Barry in Ulysses complain that Bloom wrote to her “an anonymous letter” in prentice backhand full of indecent proposals and would have Bloom use Greek e‘s in corresponding with another Martha. Joyce begged Marthe to tell him her name. She will not mind if he suggests she is Jewish, for after all Jesus lay in the womb of a Jewish mother. As for himself, he is a writer, and at a pivotal moment in his life. His age is the same as Dante’s when he began the Divine Comedy and as Shakespeare’s when he fell in love with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (a date we don’t know). He is supremely unhappy; he must see her.
Marthe yielded to these importunities and agreed to meet him. Whether she was Jewish or not, Joyce did not spend much time on religion; rather he turned the conversation to the congenial subject of women’s drawers, always a titillating topic for him, and one which figures prominantly in the “Nausicaa” episode. It was not easy for Marthe to meet him because, as she archly confided, she had a “guardian” named Rudolf Hiltpold. Hiltpold was really her lover, the man who paid her rent. He was vigilant and she had to be circumspect. Joyce inscribed a copy of Chamber Music to her and left it in her letterbox. It was an appropriate gift for Martha, especially since he has Bloom in Ulysses reflect jokingly about the relation of chamber music to chamber pots.
Evidently Marthe was impressed. Gerty MacDowell in “Nausicaa” would also be interested in poetry, though of an even more hopeless kind. Joyce now prepared a curious ceremony. On February 2, 1919, his thirty-seventh birthday, he arranged for her to have tea at the studio of his friend Frank Budgen. A note he sent to her that morning is headed “Marias Lichtmesse,” or Candlemas, which also takes place on February 2, the feast commemorating the Purification of the Virgin Mary. He evidently wished to infuse a touch of mariolatry in his sexual approach, and in Ulysses he parallels Bloom’s secular adoration of Gerty MacDowell with a men’s retreat at a church dedicated to the Virgin. For the occasion Joyce borrowed a handsome Jewish candlestick, such as is lighted during the festival of Chanukah, and brought it to Frank Budgen’s studio. He explained that Marthe would be arriving a little later.
Budgen had scruples about assisting his friend in this infidelity and said so. Joyce replied severely, “If I permitted myself any restraint in this matter it would be spiritual death to me.” Rather than feel guilty of spiritual murder, Budgen gave in. There were further preparations. Budgen’s paintings would do well enough as décor, except that there were no nudes among them. The painter had therefore to whip up a charcoal drawing of a voluptuous nude on the spot. Joyce said that in spite of his unwillingness to use given names, on this one occasion he and Budgen must call each other not Joyce and Budgen, but Jim and Frank, and use the intimate form “du,” because he had spoken so often of Budgen to Marthe that she would find strange any more formal style of address.
Marthe arrived for Candlemas and Chanukah. When candles are lighted on Candlemas the priest speaks of them as symbolizing the light that shall enlighten the Gentiles and also the glory of the people of Israel. This text seemed to give warrant to Joyce’s syncretism. He lit the Jewish candlestick ostensibly so she could see the paintings better, actually to lend a Judeo-Christian glimmer to the erotic rendezvous. He toured the paintings with her, and, as Budgen recalled, won a reproachful smirk from Marthe when he called to her attention the fat nude. Eventually Joyce took her home. He met Budgen later that evening and confided, “I have explored the coldest and hottest parts of a woman’s body.” Gerty MacDowell reproaches Bloom, “You saw all the secrets of my bottom drawer.”
Such scientific lechery would be mocked in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses. Presumably it remained exploratory, or so Budgen, knowing his friend’s latent inhibitions, surmised. As for Marthe, she always referred to her acquaintance with Joyce as “eine Platonische Liebe.” A day or two later Joyce was asked by another friend why he had borrowed the candlestick, and replied, “For a black mass.” Bloom, ruminating about Gerty, and at the same time remembering the words “Next year in Jerusalem” from still another Jewish festival, that of Pass-over, conflates the two in the “Nausicaa” episode by thinking how she “showed me her next year in drawers.”
Further meetings with Marthe Flesichmann now became out of the question. The redoubtable “guardian” Rudolf Hiltpold got wind of the matter and wrote a threatening letter to Joyce. Joyce went at once to see him, assured him that nothing had happened, and gave him all of Marthe’s letters. Hiltpold was mollified. Still, Marthe’s haughty, naughty beguilements helped Joyce to compose the “Nausicaa” episode, a point he confirmed by sending her a postcard with greetings to Nausicaa from Odysseus. Her limp, her coyness, her prattling about Platonic love, her responsiveness to his interest in drawers all went to furnish out Gerty MacDowell, whose first name and pallid hands had come to him from his earlier attraction to Gertrude Kaempffer. The assignation on the Virgin Mary’s Candlemas, with Chanukah and Passover trimmings, would have its uses. His would-be infidelities had served his book, if not his peculiar life.