Posts Tagged ‘bildungsroman’

Bildungsromane

October 27, 2021

The idea of the bildungsroman – the novel that shows a character’s development through childhood to maturity, with a focus on the influences that shape the personality, is an interesting one, that has fallen out of favour: I think it was a creature of the earlier days of psychology when it was not only scientists but also writers who explored, in their different ways, how we become who we are.

And we can look at our own lives from that perspective, too, although it seems to have become easier as I have grown older, and have a greater span of time to look back on, as well as some greater clarity about the sort of person I’ve turned into. I can perceive all sorts of influences, first from my parents, obviously, and then from significant friends and acquaintances at various points in my earlier life. And I suspect there comes a point where I cease to be strongly influenced by anyone any more; perhaps I am now ‘fixed’ as it were…

I realise that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre comes from the days before psychology, yet it’s surely a novel about the formation and development of Jane’s personality, from the malign influences of her early days to the kindlier ones of her friend Helen Burns, and some of her teachers at Lowood School. Her strength of character is tested by her feelings for Rochester, as is her moral sense; her acquired wisdom happily leads her to refuse the wiles of St John.

I can now remember very few details from Samuel Butler’s later and now sadly neglected novel The Way of All Flesh, but there is a clear picture of the malign influence of his overbearing father, and his struggles to break away from him, become a separate individual, and make his own choices about his life, which may have a chance of leading to happiness.

And then there’s the modernist James Joyce, and his marvellous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical in places, and using the stream of consciousness to explore the inside of the character’s head. Here it’s the suffocating combination of the small-mindedness of Irish patriotism and Catholicism combined that leads to breakdown and the decision that the only way to escape is exile… The oppression of the child Stephen is evident in that novel, and it’s explored further, and differently, in parts of Ulysses.

Various other titles occur to me, and also the idea that all of these novels about the development of an individual into their own person, finding themselves and creating their lives, came along at a similar time in my own personal development and growth: I first read almost all of these texts avidly, and maybe not all that critically, in my later teens and early twenties. I remember being powerfully moved by the search for meaning undertaken by the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by various of Hermann Hesse’s heroes, perhaps particularly Siddhartha, and even by some of D H Lawrence’s characters.

I often return to Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, at times like this, and realise that perhaps not everyone does look back and consider the ways in which their lives have been shaped in key ways at certain times. Parental influence is perhaps the most powerful, given that it lasts the longest; then there is that of certain friends at particular moments, and perhaps later in life of people whom we might describe as mentors, maybe at crucial moments in the development of a career. You can’t undo your past, of course, but seeing clearly can be useful, as well as realising the moments where the choices made were actually one’s own, and therefore acts of conscious control over one’s life. And there is Umberto Eco’s (I think) observation, that one who reads lives hundreds or thousands of lives…

Hermann Hesse: Early Novels

January 28, 2021

        .    I went back into my hippy past a few weeks ago with my re-reading of Richard Brautigan, and I’ve done some more by re-visiting Hermann Hesse; a good many of the novels I haven’t touched for getting on for half a century, apart from Siddhartha and Narziss and Goldmund. But way back in the day I hoovered up everything I could find as soon as it appeared in paperback: what attracted me to it?

In the end, Hesse writes bildungsromane, and I think it was the fact that I was at that stage, too, which drew me to him: young people (men) beginning to explore the world and discover and assert their identity, and realise that meaning and satisfaction in life had to be striven for, they didn’t just happen along. And this time around, I’ve dug into the author’s life-story too, and discovered that so much of what he recounts as fiction in the early novels is in fact thinly disguised autobiography; he writes so movingly and effectively at times because he’s been there…

Peter Camenzind, his first novel, was written when he was 27. A young boy is taken out of his rural milieu to continue his education: it becomes evident he has the potential to become a poet; he struggles with feelings, and with relations with women, and his one deep friendship, with another man, clearly has homosexual undertones, though nothing is spelled out openly. The sudden loss of this friend leads to self-isolation, drinking, and a feeling of aimlessness in his life; nature becomes a restorative, a curative for the problems of individuals and the world. In the end, he learns that all that one can rely on is oneself; friends leave, or die, and the women we desire are unattainable, in the sense that we build up expectations that can never be fulfilled. So he returns home to his village and his roots and settles back into his original world, with the feeling that leaving briefly was an experience, but not where he was meant to go.

The Prodigy (sometimes titled Under The Wheel in English) is highly autobiographical: an academically bright young boy from a simple background is hot-housed academically by father, teachers and ministers; he is clearly unhappy being gradually taken away from his childish pleasures and pastimes, symbolised by some beautifully lyrical passages about fishing. He must fulfil others’ dreams and expectations at college, and fill his head with purposeless and dull learning. He best friend is a rebel to whom he fails to remain loyal, and over-studying takes its toll and makes him physically ill: he has a nervous breakdown. After he has dropped out, to the disgust of all his formerly eager mentors, he contemplates suicide, then takes up an apprenticeship, and accidentally drowns while drunk. It’s an incredibly sad and very depressing read.

Gertrude is the story of a man, crippled as a teenager in a tobogganing accident, who regards himself as marked for life and doomed to unhappiness as a result. He becomes a very successful composer, and a loner, choosing to avoid others and their companionship, apart from another man who is a successful opera singer and philanderer, who eventually marries the woman to whom he was attracted. That marriage brings misery to both, and our hero can only watch in dismay from the sidelines. It’s a story of discovering where contentment, meaning and satisfaction may be found, and how hard these are to achieve; they seem to come with time, after much isolation and suffering.

At times I have been finding Hesse’s style in these early works rather too gushing, and over-effusive in his descriptions of nature and the ways it affects his characters. He often writes extremely wooden and unconvincing dialogue too (I can’t imagine that it’s merely the result of poor translation). And yet he writes with a wisdom about all ages and stages of life, even when he hasn’t experienced those stages himself; he has his characters reflect with maturity on their lives and predicaments, and it’s clear that what I found astonishingly deep, as well very romantic – in the German sense – in my younger days must have come from deep within the writer himself. In my twenties, I had some idea of what I was looking for; now I am pushed to reflect on where I have reached.

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

Marguerite Yourcenar: L’Oeuvre au Noir

June 18, 2018

51zEOgllRmL._AC_US218_51HB6gDD2sL._AC_US218_Have you ever read a book, thought, “That was really good!” and realised that you hadn’t really grasped more that half of it? That happened again, with another Marguerite Yourcenar novel, just as it had a few years with her more famous Memoirs of Hadrian… I shall be going back to both of them, because there’e so much more in there.

This novel was translated into English as The Abyss by Yourcenar’s lover. It’s a bildungsroman in a sense, as it’s Zeno’s life and development that we follow mainly, in the development of the mind of a Renaissance genius and freethinker – so you know really that it’s not likely to turn out well for him. The early sixteenth century, with its explosion of knowledge plus a certain measure of intellectual liberty (in some places) unleashed by the Reformation, holds a fascination for writers; this novel recalled for me the award-winning (and soon-forgotten) Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, and the astonishing Q by Luther Blissett, the only novel I know of written by an anarchist collective… Also in there is an echo of Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, as Yourcenar does spend time comparing the attitudes and fates of Zeno’s childhood companion, too.

Zeno’s main interest is scientific – including alchemical – and medical research, many aspects of which were fraught with all sorts of dangers in those days. The rich heir, Zeno’s friend and companion of his early days, rejects that world in favour of soldiering and whoring; they meet up after many years in a significant encounter. Indeed there are many chance encounters and re-encounters throughout this novel, which add layers of depth and meaning to events and characters.

The turbulent backdrop of warfare and religious strife forms a panorama to the book; Yourcenar is clearly very interested in what people then knew and didn’t know, what they cared about and didn’t care about. The picture she develops is quite different from our twenty-first century picture of what things were like back then, and her picture of the isolation of thinkers, writers and savants in a time where communication was a lengthy process or hardly existed at all, where one didn’t learn of quite major or catastrophic events until months later is quite an eye-opener. Little knowledge being disseminated, it was possible for significant research and discoveries to be lost forever; equally laborious work might be duplicated unwittingly. It was a long time before a world of new learning had accumulated sufficient critical mass to become a permanent fixture, incapable of being suppressed by religious or temporal powers.

Yourcenar also evokes brilliantly through the character of Zeno how the mind of a savant in those times so different from our own might have worked, explored, wandered from subject to subject, and attempted to work things out; from the historical and the psychological perspective it’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel, and a reminder of both how dangerous knowledge can be, and how tenuous our hold on progress and civilisation is, too.

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre

March 21, 2018

41mxwSdzuzL._AC_US218_I don’t exactly remember how, at a recent family gathering, we ended up with a lively discussion of the character of Mr Rochester, but I did end up agreeing to re-read Jane Eyre and remind myself of what I thought. The heavy-duty gothic elements of the novel had faded somewhat since I’d last read it – the dreams pregnant with significance, the weighty use of pathetic fallacy, as had the super-sized lashings of Victorian Christianity. On the one level, the author displays outrage at the more hypocritical aspects of such religion and the attendant ‘charity’ (Lowood School, obviously) and its meanness, but the whole of Jane’s life is driven by the need to be ‘good’…

As a bildungsroman it’s worth consideration as we do see how her character is formed by certain crucial events – Lowood, Helen Burns’ friendship, Miss Temple, encounters with Rochester and St John Rivers – and she moves quite convincingly from timidity to self-confidence and self-reliance through her experiences of love and trust, as well as hardship and deprivation.

Rochester’s appearance is trailed well in advance, and I was brought up short by the fact that he’s twice her age: another cradle-snatcher, almost, like Emma Woodhouse‘s Mr Knightley. What is it about women and older men in novels of that century: is it crudely reductionist to see a sublimation or even repression of youthful sexuality here? What is the attraction? He behaves oddly at their initial encounter: he is awkward, forward, forthright, abrupt and domineering, it seemed to me. Quickly they are established as intellectual equals, yet her supposed superior morality – through her religion – is underlined, and contrasted with the rakish behaviour tolerated in males of the time.

Rochester is unconventional, and this makes him interesting, and attractive to Jane. But he is a flawed character and must suffer for his offences, even though she has fallen in love with him. The portrait of an ageing playboy lumbered with an insane wife (and, importantly, his ensnarement into this marriage goes some way to excuse his behaviour) does show us a tormented and tortured man craving happiness when he recognises its possibility, but he is surely wrong – whatever century we are in – when he seeks to beguile Jane into a bigamous relationship.

There is rather too much coincidence in all the long-lost family connections and money for this modern reader, and the creepiness of St John Rivers palls very quickly, as the author again criticises – though mildly and carefully now – Victorian religion and missionary fervour, while making her case for a woman’s right to real love and happiness on her terms. The maiming of Rochester goes too far for me, as does his conversion to religion in the maudlin and sentimental conclusion to the novel; I was confirmed in my feeling that Villette is the superior novel, and also very surprised at how the two novels end so similarly, with the deaths of potential lovers…

So, Mr Rochester: a lively and attractive mind but not sexy as that wouldn’t do in the 1850s; a forthright and open-minded character (perhaps as a would-be bigamist, too open-minded); a match for Jane intellectually, but a life-partner? possibly. There I’m not convinced.

 

Philosophy in literature

February 11, 2016

I wrote generally about philosophy in a recent post, and it occurred to me I should develop my thoughts and look at philosophy in the literature I’ve read.

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I suppose I must first have met it when I read Sartre‘s novels all those years ago: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul seem to have been compusory teenage reading in the ninetee-seventies – all that existentialism, and attempting to live by it. It made a stunning BBC TV series in the seventies, too, one that I and many others would live to see again, but I’ve never really felt tempted to return to the novels.

Another philosophical novelist I encountered at roughly the same time was Hermann Hesse, and I have returned to some of his novels recently (Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddartha, via Librivox). In the former, his two heroes spend their lives seeking out paths to live by, one through religious and contemplative life and the other through travel, exploration of and involvement with the world; it’s still one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Siddartha tells the story of the development of the Buddha; it’s still, for me, the clearest exposition of Buddhist teachings and way of life I’ve read, and far more accessible than that faith’s philosophical and sacred texts.

Again, as a teenager, I read Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, another story of the search for a way to live and a meaning to life, a bildungsroman of the kind that would appeal to a teenage male looking out at the potential of the whole world for the first time.

Interestingly, the philosophical novel took a back seat for many years as I got on with living my life, rather than thinking about it. In passing, I encountered Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both noted for wandering off-piste to philosophise about the world and the meaning of life for while, whenever it suited them…

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One of my favourite novels of all time, which I only came across a decade or so ago, is Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life. It explores and espouses quietism and flight from the world, perhaps a perfectly understandable response to the Great War. And also quite stunning in terms of its evocation of a sense of place.

If asked to choose my favourite travel writer of all time, I think it would be the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, whose travels and explorations in the first half of the twentieth century led her to India and Hindu philosphy and yoga in her search for tranquillity and a meaning to existence towards the end of her wanderings; Ti-Puss is an account of some of her time and adventures in Southern India.

Most recent discovery of philosophy in a novel (only available in French, I’m afraid) is the story of the eleventh century Arab doctor and savant Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Gilbert Sinoué‘s novel Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan is a marvellous imagining of his life, trials and tribulations.

I’ve often written of, and spoken about, novels that have made me think; those I’ve mentioned above have taken that quality a level deeper, as it were.

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March

July 22, 2013

41n4v7CMz9L._AA160_I failed to tackle Bellow at university, while reading for my master’s degree. Finally, I caught up with him, and I don’t really think it was worth it…

In the introduction to my edition, Martin Amis decides that this is ‘the great American novel’. Sorry, but in my mind that title goes to Heller‘s Catch 22. So, what, didn’t I like about this novel? I persevered because I wanted to see how it ended up, but it just petered out, maybe resolved because the eponymous character had finally got married. But I wasn’t convinced by that. It’s a bildungsroman, but I couldn’t really work up any interest in any of the characters for large parts of the story. There were a lot of dreadful, rich people in Gatsby mode who went for each other like rats in a sack, leading existences totally divorced from reality on Planet Earth, and which rather furthered my picture of the United States being a strange place inhabited by stranger people. I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one to explore, rather hackneyed now, though perhaps less so in the 1950s, so I can’t blame Bellow for that. But the idea that anyone can, through their own efforts, rise to the top of the pile, is responsible for some of the worst excesses in our world; it hardly furthers human happiness, except fleetingly for a few, perhaps.

Bellow’s use of English (American?) was interesting at times; some of his description, especially when accretive, verged on the poetic, and I liked it a lot. But I was overpowered by the pancake erudition, dozens of references to all sorts of classical and historical and political figures and ideas spread out before the reader in a very show-off fashion, and, to my mind, totally unconvincing in the mouth of the first-person narrator.

I’m glad I read the novel, but I won’t be spending any more eyeball-time on him.

The Razor’s Edge: Somerset Maugham

March 23, 2013

My copy tells me it’s nearly forty years since I last read this novel. As I began re-reading, I found it a little superficial, although I was hooked as soon as a small detail, which either I’d forgotten, or never really taken on board all those years ago, loomed larger: the hero, Larry, was deeply affected by his experiences during the First World War, and this explained the quest and the entire direction his subsequent life took.

Another bildungsroman, which I suppose is why I felt it had such a great influence on me in my teenage years – someone going out to explore life, seek meaning and understanding, and, more importantly, finding contentment. Larry turns his back on conventional American paths, and drifts or travels, ultimately ending up in India and finding his understanding of the world through Hindu philosophy, before returning to the US to live his life as an ordinary person.

In a lot of ways, it’s a run-of-the-mill novel of its time, though the characters are well-drawn and the sense of yearning for understanding powerfully conveyed. But will anyone read it in fifty years’ time? The quest for meaning and understanding will surely still happen, but the contexts and the places will change…

And serendipity… the time and the travels reminded me of the life and journey of my favourite travel writer, Ella Maillart, who travelled the world in the nineteen-thirties and forties, realising she was seeking something, and ultimately also ended up in India, finding spiritual rest there.

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