On being two years older than Leopold Bloom

It was as I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s 1993 ‘dramatisation’ of Ulysses last week that it hit me.

I had been listening as I worked – mindless computer work – and the quasi-ambient experience, with only half of my attention devoted to the audiobook, seemed rather to suit its style: protean, contingent and demotic. Its tide of impressions, internal and external, washed over me and back, and occasionally I had to pause the file, and drag back to a listen to a moment again.

But, when Molly Bloom, near the start of her soliloquy (beautifully performed by Sínead Cusack), said “getting on to forty he is now” I had to actually get up and physically fetch my copy of the book to check it.

What the fuck: Leopold Bloom is under forty?

What the double fuck: He’s younger than me?

This astonishing fact went against my most basic, never-articulated assumptions about the book. Frankly, it got me down. Almost more than when I realised I’d passed 26 without directing a film of the magnitude of Citizen Kane, or 33 without ascending into heaven.

Right. So, I got down the book. Here’s the line, coming when Molly remembers surprising her husband in the act of writing an illicit love letter:

all men get a bit like that at his age especially getting on to forty he is now

Bloom, it turns out, is 38. Now, I don’t know the book well enough to know if I’m getting the signals wrong, but I had always assumed that Bloom was nearer 50 to 40. Now that I think about this I can only imagine that this is due to a subconscious casting of myself, at the first time of reading, as Stephen Dedalus, and my own father as Bloom.

The first piece of casting was, it turns out, fine: I first picked up the book, I should think, in my late teens; but the second is off by quite a bit. My father is 30 years older than I, just as I am 30 years older than my eldest children, but Bloom, at 38, is only 18 or so years older than Stephen, although a more manageable 23 years older than his daughter Milly – and would have been 27 years older than Rudy, his late son.

Now, this discrepancy might be something to do with changes in parenthood over the generations – that people are having children later – but that only slightly alters the salient point: that it’s weird, isn’t it?, for Joyce to have taken two men of these ages to exemplify a father-son relationship.

(How old is Homer’s Odysseus at his homecoming ? The internet tells me 45, and the books I have to hand give me no corroboration, so even there Joyce has deviated from his source. How old was Joyce when he was writing the book? This seems more germane, and the answer is, seemingly, 32 at its start, 39 by its completion.)

These questions are perhaps not the real point – and in any case I should read more, and think more, before reaching for an answer, for people before me must have asked it, and in any case the answer is in the text. The real point is, why was it such a shock to me?

In passing, it must be said, that the very specificity of Bloom’s biography is unusual in literature. When Uncle Monty notes that the moment is passed where he might first have said, “I shall never play the Dane”, he is operating in a grey area. An actor might – at a stretch – play Hamlet one year, Lear the next. Reading novels, we are usually given a certain amount of leeway in terms of how we compare ourselves, agewise (and otherwise) to the characters.

Not so with Bloom. The specifics are there.

Two years older than he, my bloom is fading.

My shock, of course, resolves to autobiography, and thus to self-justification. The people I know of Stephen’s age, now that I am Bloom’s age – I see no paternal dimension to those relationships. Although for all I know they (and Joyce) might.

Above all, or under all, the reason for my continued making of Bloom as older than his years is because, at some level, I read him as a failure, though a noble one. Molly certainly thinks so, bemoaning his lack of drive, his continual knocking together of “a paltry few shillings” from selling advertising. And it’s surely useful for me to have this failed paternal role model floating vaguely ahead of me by ten years or so, so that, when I get there, I’ll have had the chance to surpass him, to not be a failure in the material ways I (and Molly) consider him a failure (and that my long-suffering wife might look on the me the same): I won’t still be doing dull newspaper work, cranking out book reviews for an equally paltry amount. But I am, and he is, and  there we are, together, the two of us.

There’s the challenge of the book, then: to read it in the clear knowledge that Bloom is not lurking ahead of me, he’s me, now.

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