Bildungsroman (bildung=“formation” + roman=”story”) – A novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character. (Answers.com)
I should have guessed that there was a German word for the “coming-of-age novel.” Bildungsroman. “Formation story.” The most formative novels for me have been “formation stories.” They simply grip me at the personal level like nothing else I’ve read. There’s a timelessness to them which must have something to do with the way childhood memories are so vivid and formational. The time in which we grow from a youth toward an adult is a mesmerizing, difficult, painful, awakening time. And though we may leave childhood, childhood doesn’t leave us. If you have spent any time around the elderly, you know how true this is. It’s as if childhood is our “Eden,” that from which we have been expelled, and that for which we pine.
This genre of literature has attracted some of the finest writers in history. Or perhaps it is that some of – if not the most gifted writers have sensed that if they want to exercise their powers to the fullest degree, then exploring the path from childhood to adulthood will duly challenge their skills while enabling them to connect with their readership, tapping into the human psyche like a needle into a vein. If a writer wants to deal with the deepest of human themes – death, friendship, family, sexuality, meaning, calling – he/she will do no better than tracing the path of discovery from naivete to experience, from childhood to adulthood; which will require every bit of talent a writer has – and then some.
Each summer I hand out a reading list to the staff at Alpine Camp for Boys. This year, after I had talked through my list (see below) and delivered a sermonette on Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and “coming-of-age” novels in general, a first-year counselor approached me and said, “My favorite coming-of-age novel is Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. Have you read it?” I had not. I bought the book a couple of weeks ago (this one takes place in England in the 1980’s) and just recently finished it. And now I am writing this essay, because once again I am reminded of the power and poignancy of “bildungsroman,” or “formation stories.”
So, here’s my current list of coming-of-age novels. It’s a work in progress. Which leaves a question. What are your favorite “bildungsromans”?
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
The Chosen, Chaim Potok
All Quiet on the Western Front, Eric Maria Remarque
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank Bryan