Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The German Sneeze

Besides sounding as though it were the title of an eventful discovery of a forgotten Wagner opera, rescued from oblivion in an old library, Bildungsroman has the authenticity of sounding like a German sneeze.  It is an established literary form, so much so that you grew up on any number of them and to this day reach for them as though they were kielbasa or Hebrew National franks, piled high on a platter, passed around for second helpings.

Of course the Twain works occupy terrain near the top of the pyramid, Huck sharing with Pip (from Mr. Dickens' great Great Expectations)honors for first-person narrative resonance.  Mr. Salinger's Holden Caulfield is right up there as well because one of the two, Holden or Jerome David, found the near-perfect pitch for the metaphor and the seeming essential grain of truth, embedded within many observations about life and the details of life.

Young persons, growing up not quite formed within an adult world populated by grouchy adults and their grouchy rules, seem to you ideal torchbearers to follow.  For one thing, even though it has been established that the sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year old minds are not fully developed to their potential, you rode that cusp of believing you had all the equipment you needed while believing from time to time that you were several ants short of a picnic.  Still do, particularly when listening to the likes of the seventeen-year-old daughter of a friend,who has left you with the impression that she can conversationally and concept-wise pop the equivalent of a wheelie whenever she chooses.

Such are the individuals who populate the coming-of-age story or bildungsroman.  You think of Saul Bellow's Augie Marsh and Walter Tevis' Beth Harmon from Queen's Gambit, wherein Beth learns to play chess from the janitor in a Kentucky orphanage.   You think about the enormous energy, drive, and sense of purpose.  You think, it is not too late yet, not for a freaking minute.  You think of Bobbie Ann Mason's remarkable young woman, Sam (for Samantha),who makes more sense of what we think of as The Viet Nam War that we as adults were ever able to make of it.  You think of Jane Eyre, you think of perhaps the first bildungsroman you ever read, not knowing it was the German sneeze but rather a tale of a young man with a flaw, looking for answers and purpose.

Don't even talk about David Copperfield or Sons and Lovers, although, even though it is so much a boy book, you will insist on Treasure Island and linger on Kidnapped because it takes the young person beyond mere betrayal and into history in the making.  In its own, wonderful way, Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh fits the bildungsroman mould, and how could you possibly not mention Amory Blaine from Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise.

No, you do not think you are going after one on your own; you are still flirting with yet another iconic sort, the mystery. But you will bring dozens of influences with you when you get back to the mystery, influences of the brilliant truths uttered by individuals who believed there were no limitations in the universe.

This was in fact inspired by a bildungsroman you are scarcely into, Martha Grimes's Fadeaway Girl.  How easy it is for the adult reader to be drawn into the landscape and predicaments of the teen narrator; we recognize the need for a fresh eye, in particular when dealing with matters over which we may have stumbled ourselves.

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