German word of the day – “Bildungsroman”

Yesterday I learned a new German word – but not because I live in a German speaking region, and not because I read Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” or any commentary about it in its native language (though admittedly these would actually be good present day activities for me – but I digress…)

I’m not even exactly sure how I stumbled on this word anymore, because it was one of those strange moments where a bunch of divergent aspects of my life came together and suddenly made sense in a brand new context (which, ironically, is best described by another German word commonly used in English) and I’m like 10 degrees of separation away from that original context now.

What is important is that I have a new word to represent what I already understood well – the concept of the “coming-of-age” story, which is pretty much what “Bildungsroman” translates as in English (and do yourself a favor and play the little pronunciation samples they have embedded in the definition, just for the hell of it – they give you the English singular and German plural versions and I bet neither of them are what you’d expect this word to sound like if you are a native English speaker).

Bildungsroman - from "erase pen" http://www.dipity.com/tickr/Flickr-erase-pen/

A Bildungsroman novel is usually about a kid and how he/she grows up to be a man/woman, or as this article cites, it’s a story “which focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood.” This author, who focuses on Victorian era literature (of which apparently this genre was very popular), breaks it down like this:

1. A Bildungsroman is, most generally, the story of a single individual’s growth and development within the context of a defined social order. The growth process, at its roots a quest story, has been described as both “an apprenticeship to life” and a “search for meaningful existence within society.”

2. To spur the hero or heroine on to their journey, some form of loss or discontent must jar them at an early stage away from the home or family setting.

3. The process of maturity is long, arduous, and gradual, consisting of repeated clashes between the protagonist’s needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order.

4. Eventually, the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society. The novel ends with an assessment by the protagonist of himself and his new place in that society.

Now, if you’ve read my book already, then you know what I’m getting at with all of this: basically, my book can be aligned with this genre pretty well (and that’s not something I’d really like to admit, since I’ve been resisting pigeonholing this funny, sad, insane, sensible, repulsive, enlightening, common sense and amazingly ordinary story into a nice little convenient marketing package, on principle alone).

But there’s a couple of distinctions I would make (as other sub-genres of this literary device have as well):

  • The main protagonist in my book, Cecil Adams, isn’t a child – but “maturity” is a subjective thing, and a key aspect of his character’s personality development
  • and “the spirit and values of the social order become(ing) manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society” isn’t the issue in this story – actually, it’s the complete opposite (unless you consider “the social order” to be metaphorical and spiritual in nature – but that’s a different conversation for another time…) and the premise that the character must be accommodated in-to society is actually the cause of the original problem.

And so I’ve decided to create my own subgenre of the Bildungsroman: the Antibildungsroman. You know, Google Translate doesn’t always do the best job, but when it comes up with gems like that one, it makes up for a lot of strange translations. If you flip it around and write it as “anti-education novel”, it describes succinctly how the “antagonist” Linda challenges Cecil’s “education” in life (specifically, what it means to be a man, but really, what it means to be human); and if you leave it as “novel anti-education”, and think of the adjective form of the word novel (“of a new kind; different from anything seen or known before”), then it still works (at least for me…)

And so here it is:

  • Antibildungsroman: a story that traces the psychological and moral growth of characters (protagonists and/or antagonists) as they endure repeated clashes between their needs and desires and the social order they learned them from, culminating in a perceptual epiphany that alters their existence (and those around them) indelibly.

Eventually I’m going to have to come up with a more directly English variant on this word, because it’s just too much of a mouthful – but for now, I’m pleased as punch to have something that can get across the wide array of themes in this novel in a more concise and efficient way.

 

 

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