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Monday musings on Australian literature: The Australian bildungsroman

March 28, 2011
Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin, c. 1940s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I know the sad truth. About everything.
(Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones)

In past posts, I’ve talked of enjoying coming-of-age novels (aka bildungsroman) and so today I thought I’d share 5 (cos 5 seems like a manageable number for a list like this – and gives you an opportunity to contribute your own!) Australian novels in the genre.

In the introduction to a course on “The European bildungsroman” at Columbia University in the USA, there is a brief discussion on the definition of the term. The unnamed writer (so let’s call him/her Columbia) of the introduction says:

My particular approach to defining the genre … returns to Dilthey‘s original definition. According to Dilthey, the prototypical Bildungsroman is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in which the hero engages in a double task of self-integration and integration into society.

Columbia then expounds a little on this definition arguing that, while Dilthey see this as an affirmative, conservative genre which aims to find the “hero” a productive place in a valid society, s/he sees it as involving a tension – that between “the priorities of self-integration and social integration”, between personal desire and social obligation. For Columbia this tension is a major criterion for the Bildungsroman genre. This makes sense to me … perhaps this tension isn’t an issue for every young person who is coming of age, but a coming-of-age story without that tension, without some conflict to resolve, is probably not going to be interesting to read!

(By the way, I’m not sure that this necessarily negates Dilthey’s definition. The difference between Dilthey and Columbia seems to me to be that Dilthey focuses on the end result, while Columbia focuses on the process which may or may not culminate in Dilthey’s goal.)

And so, five Australian coming-of-age novels (choosing from those I’ve read):

  • Miles Franklin‘s My brilliant career (1901) is probably Australia’s best known book of the genre. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about Sybylla, a young girl on an outback property who must choose between her passion for a man and her passion to be a writer. It was made into a film by Australian director Gillian Armstrong.
  • Henry Handel Richardson‘s The getting of wisdom (1910) is another novel about a blue-stocking girl. Laura’s innocence and idealism are sorely tested by the city sophistication of her well-to-do peers. In this story, the awakening is more intellectual and philosophical than sexual. According to the Henry Handel Richardson Society, this novel was admired by HG Wells. It was also made into a film.
  • Melina Marchetta‘s Looking for Alibrandi (1992) is a young adult novel (and, later, a film) which adds an immigrant background to the heroine’s challenge. Not only is she a young intelligent girl who confronts her awakening sexuality but she must do so within the strictures of a conservative Italian family.
  • Tim Winton‘s Breath (2008) explores the youthful drive to prove oneself, to take risks, and the complications that arise from choosing an imperfect male role model and from becoming embroiled in a rather unhealthy sexual relationship with an older woman. Eva is no Mrs Robinson. The question left for the reader at the end goes to the heart of Columbia’s disagreement with Dilthey.
  • Craig Silvey‘s Jasper Jones (2009) is set in rural 1960s Western Australia and, with a nod to To kill a mockingbird, combines a somewhat Gothic mystery with a more traditional coming-of-age story. Racism (against immigrants and indigenous people), sexuality and learning who you can trust are some of the adult issues that Charlie confronts in his growth to maturity.

I’m intrigued by how many of these books have a rural or small town setting. (Even Laura, in The getting of wisdom, is a country child, though the book is set in a city boarding school. Looking for Alibrandi is the only truly urban novel here.) Is this because we equate country with innocence? Because rural life tends to be more conservative and therefore presents a greater challenge to a burgeoning self? Is it simply that the books I’ve chosen are not representative? Or? What do you think?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 19:02

    I whole-heartedly agree with My Brilliant Career and Looking for Alibrandi. Haven’t read the others so can’t comment – but I would add Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles to the list.

    • March 28, 2011 21:53

      Thanks Yvann … I can jump puddles is a good one isn’t it because it has that added issue of disability. I guess the difference with it is that it is autobiography, rather than fiction. It’s a great read.

  2. March 28, 2011 20:19

    Perhaps because in the country, the isolation causes people to self-reflect, and resolve issues for themselves, whereas in urban settings, people are bombarded with multiple possibilities? I think that’s why kids are sent on Outward Bound, where they are forced to deal with their thoughts.

    Somewhat predictably, I disliked Looking for Alibrandi. At 15, we were prescribed this book in English class, and I could not help but feel disappointed in the new curriculum, considering my previous school had us reading Shabanu and The Old Man and the Sea.

    • March 28, 2011 22:00

      Oh, I can understand that disappointment Delilah … I read it as an adult and though it was an engaging, if mostly predictable read, but it was good to see the immigrant issue tackled.

      And thanks for engaging on the country-city question. The opportunity to self-reflect is an interesting idea …

  3. March 28, 2011 23:02

    I suspect that in many of these books emerging from rural to city is a metaphor for loss of innocence. The country is pristine, virgin, the city is ripe with temptation. Does that make sense?

    More recently Ron Eliott’s Spinner is a coming of age story about a young (once again country) boy discovering he has a talent for cricket and moving to the city to pursue his sport.

    I Am the Messenger, a YA book by Markus Zusak, is a coming of age story set in Sydney.

    • March 29, 2011 00:00

      Yes, I like that metaphor idea … though not all the books do have the characters moving to the city. Where they do though the metaphor would mostly work I think.

      Have you read Spinner? Is it good? I’d love to read another Zusak, as I’ve only read The book thief which I liked a lot. I’ve seen him on The First Tuesday Bookclub and he seems like a really lovely fellow.

      • March 29, 2011 03:58

        Spinner is a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.

        I had mixed feelings about the Zusak book — it was a choice for my book group, and not something I would normally have read. I could see it would appeal to a YA audience though.

        • March 29, 2011 22:49

          Yes, I rather understood that he was more YA and that in some bookshops The book thief was classified as YA while in other places it was in adult fiction.

    • April 1, 2011 05:33

      For Love Alone, by Christina Stead, is the bildungsroman I was going to suggest in this thread, and it occurred to me, as I read, “The country is pristine, virgin, the city is ripe with temptation,” how little Stead respects that “pristine, virgin” state, not only in Love, but generally, across all of her books, how she respects, instead, the character who has the courage to lose her innocence — the danger, as she represents it, is that the character will remain in a half-child-state forever. The transition from childhood to adulthood (a free kind of adulthood, travel, boldness, ideals, the waves crashing around sides of your ship, etc — which is the kind she appears to value) isn’t automatic in her books, but something the characters have to achieve through force of will, fighting and battering and charging stubbornly into their mistakes.

      It also occurs to me (thank you kimbofo) that the temptations stirring the blood of the lead in Love are the temptations you would associate not with the city but with the country — noises of couples in bushes, fecundity, abundance, sweet confusing scents on the wind, the temperature — rather than night clubs, cinemas, and so on — even though she lives in Sydney. (I don’t have the book here and my memory might be faulty.)

      • April 1, 2011 22:36

        Thanks dks. Clearly this city-country nexus bears a little more thinking about. I love the way you describe the temptations of the country/bush. Perhaps the point is that whatever is opposite to your experience is the one that is most likely going to truly test you and therefore kickstart the transition to adulthood? Not that all the novels I’ve listed bear this out, but some do. Hmm…I suppose we could see it as one “technique” novelists can use to represent this change/growth.

        • April 3, 2011 03:06

          I think “whatever is opposite to your experiences (etc)” is a really brilliant way of putting it. In the case of Love Alone, the bildungscharacter starts off at home, muffled, domestic, catering to a self-satisfied father with lovely feet “like a dook”, but in the out-of-doors world, in the park, she walks alone in the mysterious breezy dusk, without catering to anyone, and this freedom is the kind of thing she needs to find more of, in order to mature. That’s the author’s opinion. The same goes for the bildingscharacter in Man Who Loved Children, and in Miss Herbert Stead invents a character who goes through bildungsexperiences without actually bildunging into any kind of maturity; she stays wilfully “pristine, virgin,” and the author is sour on her.

          (A variation on the country/city pristine/sinful divide that kimbofo suggests might be those novels about young men (usually young men) who’re taken from their suburban or city homes into the wilderness and shown how to light fires and strangle fish for food, the pristine (therefore stripped-down) nature of the country constituting a test rather than a rustic domesticity. Returning to the coddling amenities of city life the young man is refreshed and clear-eyed and wise; he sighs over frozen boxed fish patties, and wistfully eyes the decorative koi carp in the neighbour’s pond.)

  4. March 29, 2011 01:00

    I’m a foreigner and no expert on Australian lit, but it’s struck me as an oustider that there’s a whole special sub-genre (unique to Australia) of young people in the outback growing up (sometimes although not mandatory making their way to THE BIG CITY.)

    I’ll admit this is mainly through films.

    • March 29, 2011 01:00

      Films made from books, I should add.

      • March 29, 2011 22:56

        I guessed that’s what you meant. And it just shows how strong this outback is in our cultural imagination even if it’s not the main reality. It’s certainly a strong factor for me (but then again I did hit puberty in an outback mining town!)

  5. March 29, 2011 04:12

    The only one of these I know, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the Winton. What is interesting is how often you are noting that they have been made into films. There must be something about the Bildungsroman which lends itself to the telling of story in a more pictorial manner. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the art of film making to be able to take that idea any further.

    • March 29, 2011 22:53

      Interesting point. I think it’s probably simply that coming-of-age stories tend to be good stories – and have a universality that we can all relate to even in the settings, characters, circumstances are way different to ours. What would you say were English Bildingsroman?

  6. March 29, 2011 05:26

    How so very interesting. In the U.S. there seems to be lots of classics coming-of-age stories that involve traveling away from home – the road novel, the going west to make my fortune novel, and the going to sea to make my fortune novel. There are of course, lots of going to the big city novel too. I just downloaded My Brillian Career and The Getting of Wisdom to my Kindle. Now, to find the time to read them 🙂

    • March 29, 2011 22:58

      Thanks for those contributions Stefanie. Both those books are pretty easy reads (at least I think Getting of wisdom is as it’s been a LONG time since I read that versus only 20 years since I last read My brilliant career!).

  7. George permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:24

    Demographics, perhaps? When the Bildungsroman arrived the majority of the population lived in the country or in small towns. The Red and the Black begins in a small town that is in no way represented as innocent–later in the book an overheard conversation makes the point that only in Paris can one live in privacy and peace.

    • March 30, 2011 18:54

      Thanks George. The red and the black is one of those classics I haven’t read yet. Perhaps that’s one for the Kindle! I guess it just tells as that we can perhaps generalise but nothing is universal or should be taken as a given.

  8. antipodeanowl permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:40

    One of my favourites is Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro. I first read it at 16, while attending school in staunchly blue collar country town, whose weeks revolved around Friday night at the ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ pub and Saturday arvo at the footy. I can still remember how exciting it was to realise that there was a world beyond the one I knew, in which music, European culture, history, sexuality and love, were topics people talked about and took seriously. Talk about books expanding your horizons!

    • March 30, 2011 18:56

      Thanks Owl. I’ve only read one Goldsworthy – Three dog night (?) – and liked it a lot. I’ve always intended to read more but haven’t got to any yet. I can imagine how exciting it must have been. I lived in a blue collar town for a few years but left it the month I turned 14. There were good and bad things about that!

  9. March 30, 2011 23:14

    Two out of five ain’t bad, right? And surely I can say it’s 3 out of 5, because I’ve read Looking for Alibrandi many times, and we went to the movie for my birthday that year? 🙂

    • April 1, 2011 22:28

      Could be worse, could be better. The others are here waiting for you whenever you are ready.

  10. March 31, 2011 12:01

    I’ve always vaguely wondered what a bildungsroman was (clearly not a story about a bricklayer who seeks his fortune in post-war Munich). Thank you for shedding light on a small part of my ignorance.

    • April 1, 2011 22:29

      LOL zmkc. So glad I’ve been of use. It’s a great word isn’t it – though, plain speaker that I am I usually just say coming-of-age.

  11. April 3, 2011 23:05

    Brilliant might be going a bit too far DKS but thanks for running with the idea a bit. It does have a certain logic to it though like most such logic only goes so far. One can always find exceptions.

    I’m thinking too about the main character in Breath who goes through his “coming of age” experiences (in his town, mostly, but very much “other” in terms of his family) but it’s a funny sort of (damaged) maturity he ended up with and it was a long time coming. He ends up with a sort of wisdom but he’s certainly not a “well-rounded” mature character.

    I do love your word “bildunging”.

    • April 5, 2011 03:56

      Together, class: I bildunged, I am bildunging, I will bildung

      There’s a contrast, then, between a Winston-bildung, and an Austen-bildung — an Austen-bildung is more optimistic about the worth of the lead’s new wisdom. (Was that normal in books at the time? I finished Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda recently, and she had the same optimism. Maturity acted on the title character like the granting of superpowers; she solved everything.)

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