I’ve already written about the sub-genre of bildungsroman, but just as there are anti–romana, capricious responses to the bristling and audacious baggy monsters, there will be anti–bildungsromana. Categories, as they always are in order for the endless conversation about literature to continue, are difficult and the lines that separate one from the other are fraught.
James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is fraught with indeterminacy, we can be fairly sure we’re not meant to take this Dedalus all that seriously, but are we right to dismiss him totally when his life seems to mirror that of Joyce’s? Could we rightly envision him growing up into becoming the kind of writer who was capable of writing Ulysses?
As such, we already have a complicating factor in one of the foundational examples of the genre, Portrait is both for and against the emergence of self through the muddy waters of abstract thought and the wholemeal bread of life experience; the mechanisms are deployed in conjunction and opposition with one another.
I have already mentioned that J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood’s tendency is more oppositional than not, Coetzee’s flight from the experience of life, choosing hermetic seclusion, repudiating the bildung aspect is firstly, the kind of choice that befits his chilly aesthetic and secondly, probably more realistic, bearing in mind the amount of solitude that is required to commit a novel to paper. Augustus Young’s work Light Years could also be viewed as existing in this contrarian tradition.
Young emigrates from his native Cork to London, to begin pursuing his career as a poet, an avant-garde, modernist one no less. This, predictably enough, is more difficult than he thought. Young’s nationality, coupled with the sometimes obscure nature of his poetry, makes him prone to being pigeon-holed; his readers seem prone to detecting a Celtic note, much to Young’s chagrin, anticipating some of the vitriol in Storytime, a memoir detailing Young’s touring with Light Years.
Growing tired of this and the disappointments that arise from carousing with literary narcissists, motivates Young’s exile from exile and to declare his utilitarian manifesto for his life: “I see myself as a socially useful human being but with a harmless secret. When I die some poems will be discovered. If any are good enough, they will survive. If not, so be it.” This is not only a long way off Dedalus’ plan to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” it is its exact opposite.
Contributing further to this sense of Young’s writing against the bildungsroman tradition, is in its structure, which begins with a number of childhood and adolescent memories, continues with the adolescent flight from home and then, in its third section, enacts a regression back into childhood and early adolescence, almost as if the embracing of ‘life’ in London repels the book on a structural level, forcing it to move backwards into its earlier stages.
This third part is a short memoir of Young’s childhood. Siblings, parents, childhood friends and ancestral memory, handed down in the form of anecdotes and oral history loom large, much in keeping with Young’s attitude to memory and the genre in which he writes in general (“Memories aren’t true. But you can be true to them”). It equally expresses Young’s wish to be ‘useful,’ immersed in the idiosyncrasies of lived lives, rather than a shallow and solipsistic urban bohemia.