Thursday, 20 December 2012

Springtime for Leo Bloom


“I don’t know what it meant to James Joyce, but to me Leo Bloom always meant a vulnerable Jew with curly hair. Enter Gene Wilder.”
 Mel Brooks  
Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in The Producers 
The first stop on my journey with James Joyce took place long before I ever picked up a copy of Ulysses.   It started with a movie.

Growing up, my favourite movie was Mel Brooks' hilarious 1968 comedy The Producers.  I adored the timid accountant, Leo Bloom, played by Gene Wilder, who was swept up in Max Bialystock's crooked scheme to get rich by producing a Broadway flop.   

Little did I know that Mel Brooks "borrowed" the name "Leo Bloom" from the main character in Ulysses.  Brooks must have read and loved Ulysses prior to writing The Producers, because, as I later learned, his screenplay was chock full of references to Joyce's book.*    

When I first started reading Ulysses, I was surprised to come across the book's main character in the fourth chapter: a 38-year-old Jewish ad canvasser, with the same name as the Producer's character, Leo Bloom.  

Wait a minute...this bears repeating...the book I originally thought was about Ancient Greeks -- the greatest novel of the 20th century -- turned out to be a book about a Jewish marketing guy walking around Dublin with the same name as a character in my favourite movie.    

And to make things more intriguing -- similar to a Seinfeld episode -- Ulysses chronicles a day in Dublin where nothing much happens.  

Over the years, I've learned much more about Bloom.   Never mind he isn't technically Jewish.  His mother wasn't Jewish, his father converted to Christianity (twice), and he isn't circumcised.  But to everyone in Dublin, he's all too Jewish.

Bloom has been called the most complete representation of a human in literature; almost everything that Bloom says, does and thinks on a single day is included in the book.  It begins first thing in the morning on June 16, 1904, and ends late at night when an exhausted Bloom crawls into bed with his wife Molly, lying with his feet by her head and his head by her feet. 

So how did James Joyce, a Dubliner who had virtually no opportunity to interact with Jews in his youth, come to be one of the world's experts on the inner thoughts and desires of a secular Jew?     

He certainly didn't learn about Jews in Ireland.  When Joyce was six he was sent off to a boarding school in County Kildare called Clongowes Wood to be taught by Jesuits, and after that, moved to Belvedere College, another Catholic School in Dublin.  It wasn't until completing university he set off on a self-imposed exile to Trieste and Pula, where he found himself in the company of Jews, and discovered a strong affinity to them.  He became an English teacher at the Berlitz School where many of his students were Jews; he befriended them, drank with them, laughed with them and learned about them.  Years later his son, Giorgio, married a Jewish woman, Helen Fleischmann Kastor, and Joyce was overjoyed with the intermingling of the Jewish and Irish races.   

Yet while it is clear that Joyce was certainly NOT an anti-semite, many of the characters in Ulysses are blatant anti-semites.  We'll get to that in my next blog.

For now, let me return to The Producers.   Ironically, it wasn't Gene Wilder who came to personify the popular image of the Bloom character from Ulysses.     Rather, it was his co-star from The Producers, Zero Mostel.   Years prior to The Producers, Mostel starred in a Broadway play called Ulysses in Nighttown based on the Circe episode from Ulysses.   Today, when most people imagine what Bloom looks like, they think of a young Zero Mostel in a bowler.

After a long and successful run as Leo Bloom on Broadway, I wonder how Mostel must have felt playing opposite another Bloom in The Producers. 

As for current image of Bloom...put a bowler and a mustache on Sasha Baron Cohen, and "Bam!" you've got a modern day Bloom.  

*  Phrases in The Producers such as "Touch me...Touch me" come straight from the pages of Ulysses.   There's a character in The Producers called "Roger de Bris" who is a takeoff on a salacious author in Ulysses called "Paul de Kock" (Bloom's wife Molly was quite fond of his name). At one point in The Producers, an exasperated Gene Wilder asks: "when will it be Bloom's Day?" -- and a calendar on the wall of Bialystock's office showed it was June 16th (the actual Bloomsday).

1 comment:

  1. I loved 'The Producers' too! But Zero Mostel seems like a much more vibrant Bloom, at least as we know Mostel from his later work. Wonder if that 1974 run of the play is captured anywhere?