J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Boyhood’ and the childhood bildungsroman

The bildungsroman is straightforward enough to define, despite the intimidating length of the word itself. In fact, I’d hazard to estimate that a substantial chunk of the novelistic canon of the twentieth century probably falls into the category. The bildungsroman translates literally from the German to ‘novel of formation/education/culture,’ and as such generally narrates a sequence of key events in the life of the narrator, specifically those that turn out to be foundational in shaping the kind of self-consciousness that a writer of literary art seems to require. There are some works which chart this development of an artistic consciousness from the perspective of the author as a child and J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalised memoir Boyhood is one such example.

While it is not a novel, William Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude is definitely of this ilk. It describes how the young Wordsworth came to appreciate the revealed religion in nature and how it shaped his awareness of the world around him. One thinks of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s stance on child rearing, i.e. allowing them to run free in nature, rollicking through fields, smelling the daisies, what-have-you and begins to feel a bit uneasy about this iambic tract extolling the virtues of natural freedom, given what an atrocious job Coleridge did in raising his son, Hartley Coleridge.

From our contemporary perspective, it can seem as though twentieth-century examples of the genre are less extravagantly irresponsible and more realistic to boot. This is possibly due to the rise of the Viennese School which, whatever one’s opinion on its more outlying ideas, at least began to make mainstream some elementary form of developmental psychology and stressed the importance of the child’s inner world.

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time may be the archetypal bildungsroman, if only for the monumental task that reading it represents for most people, the edition that I own runs to some 3500 pages. This is not said in order to attenuate our sense of Proust’s achievement; he succeeded in marking the genre indelibly and it is rare that one finds the memoirs of an artist that is not conducted relative to Proust’s foundations. The young Marcel is an acutely sensitive young man, the vividness of his impressions of the world, the intensity of his attachment to those who populate it and the pull that art exerts on him from a young age is difficult to shake once one has put down The Way by Swann’s, the first part of this sprawling six volume arc.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a far more withdrawn work, a tone that suits Joyce’s languorous and easy irony. It depends on a deceptively straightforward system of symbolic patterning, anchored in Catholic iconography which in equal measure oppresses and enlivens Stephen Dedalus’ (a Joyce analogue) creativity. There’s no quote that can demonstrate this process taking place in its totality, but I really like this one from the first chapter: “The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologise.

Dante said:

—O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.—

Pull out his eyes,

Apologise,

Apologise,

Pull out his eyes.

Apologise,

Pull out his eyes,

Pull out his eyes,

Apologise.”

J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood is in a similar tradition of childhood memoir, but with a key difference. As he was born in South Africa, racial politics are to the fore and as such, violence is never far from the domestic space. The brutal oppression of the land and its native people spills over into the young, unnamed boy’s awareness and from his perspective, his family is a stage of primal anger and barely suppressed, unrefined and unarticulated feelings. In one scene, the boy memorably compares himself to a spider, one of the most abject of creatures, but fittingly, one that is often seen in the home: “Always, it seems, there is something that goes wrong. Whatever he wants, whatever he likes, has sooner or later to be turned into a secret. He begins to think of himself as one of those spiders that live in a hole in the ground with a trapdoor. Always the spider has to be scuttling back into its hole, closing the trapdoor behind it, shutting out the world, hiding.” It is one of the only instances in the genre of bildungsroman where seclusion, a self-imposed exile from experience is represented as beneficial to the subject. It is an image that befits the development of a consciousness as cerebral and distant as Coetzee’s.

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