Charles Pooter was probably the first ordinary man to appear in a book. His diary gives us: “After my work in the City, I like to be at home. What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it? “Home, Sweet Home,” that’s my motto.” His prosaic outlook and concerns hardly seem, except facetiously, suitable material for a book.
Yet the suburban drone is a rich vein. Reginald Perrin was one of the more memorable. Last week his creator took the final 8.15 from Norbiton, via Clapham Junction to Waterloo – and beyond. Perrin smirked through the semi-detached streets of his home, sneered in the fatuous business meetings, and with nearly Ionesco-like ridicule, mocked the conventions of middle-class life. Grot became his monstrously successful franchise of tat. It satirised consumerism. If only he’d lived through the self-replicating virus of lifestyle media which presents food and housing as economic aspirations.
Leopold Bloom is perhaps the nec plus ultra of ordinary man: real and imperfect, without special virtues but with common human qualities. The psychology that Joyce supplied him makes his humanity complete. He is not a stereotype, nor a satirical device; he does not have great thoughts and his greatest failings may be sexual desire.
Inhabiting Bloom through the first person gives the reader a place in his frontal lobe and Joyce cannily navigates between the banal and the more interesting, raising Bloom’s own life to a universal degree.
This subjective form is engaging if the character is too, otherwise it can be very dull as occurs occasionally in Woolf’s books because the character’s view is mundane, prosaic and self-regarding; or if have a very monotonous and dull way of talking/thinking. (It seems mental thoughts are not done in relative and subordinate clauses. Wittgenstein, and later, Stoppard, had view on that, which is slightly too much for this place.)
Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End took the Joyce technique wholesale, but with the cast of Ford’s characters it becomes numbing because they use stock phrases, the clichés of their time and class. Tietjens blusters and fulminates; the military characters may be true to experience but being in the mind of one, with its King’s Regulations linguistic forms is like this example.
Bloom still resonates with the experience of many and shows the ordinary is not unattractive.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.