Coming of Age -- Peter Leyland
Coming of Age
How many of us have a Coming of Age novel buried in the mysteries of our hard drives and anxious to be freed, or a partial hard copy in a folder of notes waiting to be worked on, or even an old notebook where the imaginary story of their life is penned in neatly styled longhand? I know I have all of these.
So, what is a coming of age novel? Try to recall one that made a real impression on you. It may be that you loved The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and said to yourself, yes this is me and this explains the phoney world that I'm living in and how nobody understands me except my sister Phoebe; it may be that you recall the wonderful experience of reading The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers and completely understood why the young lead character, Frankie, wants to go to her brother's wedding and honeymoon because just like she did you wanted to belong to something.
I was once teaching a Julian Barnes course which began with his Metroland (1980 and I asked the students to choose a coming of age novel. Being literary types, they wanted more of a definition of this, so I did a bit of research and came up with the following ideas from Suzanne Halder in The Bildungsroman Genre (1996) which I have summarised.
A Coming of Age novel or Bildungsroman is a novel of all round self-development, generally the story of an individual's growth within a defined social order. It can be a quest story, a search for meaningful existence within society. At the start some form of loss or discontent jars the hero/heroine away from home or family setting. The process of their maturity can be long and arduous with repeated clashes between their desires and the views of the existing social order. Eventually the values of that social order become manifest in the protagonist's behaviour and the novel ends with their recognition of this.
The classic Bildungsroman was Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-6) where a young man disillusioned by his first love sets out to travel and following a series of incidents, including the rescue of a young girl from a group of travelling acrobats, learns that all life is an apprenticeship. The idea was picked up by many C19 writers, including Dickens's story of Pip in Great Expectations and the lesser known Aurora Leigh, a 'novel in verse' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the telling of Aurora's initial rejection and final reunion with Rodney Leigh also contains speculation about the position of women in society.
The resulting list from my students ran to twenty books and contained works mostly by male authors. It ranged from Kim by Rudyard Kipling to The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Gawain poet. Surprisingly no Jane Eyre but two novels by Elizabeth Gaskell - Mary Barton and North and South - and Loving and Giving by Molly Keane.
Returning to the annals of my hard drive I dug out a piece of fictionalised memoir that I had been working on in 2017 when I was helping an artistic friend who was carrying out a study of transformational encounters. I had only just watched the start of a TV series about the war in Iraq so the idea of how I turned against war when I was about 16 was very much in my mind. So here goes:
I am going to tackle this from a life story point of view as that is what I find, not the easiest but the most satisfying. When I was growing up in Liverpool the neighbourhood was very tied to the church, not Catholic but straight C of E, and we went to it, not Mum, she just sent us to it, and we went to Sunday School and Bible Class and OMG reader there is a girl story here, but not now, not yet; Rosalind, I will leave you asleep for now; but first the chrysalis breaking open. Come on Pete, emerge!
We were in the Church Lads: Malc, Steve, Rund, me, my brother Tony, and Peter Fuller, and we played footee and handball and 'boom coming over' and drilled - Attention! Right dress! Face the front! And marched, marched, marched.
And reader, I played a snare drum and I loved it and I would be in the front of the march after Ace Burnham who swung the silver-topped mace and I would play the two threes, holding the sticks up under my nose, and we would gather outside Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, which still had the scaffolding and canvas shrouds over one end.
And then the brass bugles would blow, and the bass drum played by Clifford Hannah would keep the rhythm:
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Bang! Bang! Bang!
And it was beautiful.
Now reader the Church Lads was run by men who were quasi-military because World War Two was not long over, and some of them needed a role, and they were good-hearted men but they had been soldiers, and they wanted everybody else to be soldiers, soldiers of Christ perhaps, but still soldiers.
But the butterflies were emerging from their chrysalises because their soft bodies had been listening to songwriters like Bob Dylan who said that killing people was not such a good idea, even if they were soldiers, because lots of other people got killed too.
And wasn't Jesus against killing? You see the caterpillar's problem don't you reader?
So one day Pete, Malc, Steve, Rund, Tony (Pete's brother) and Peter Fuller went to Major Howard and told him that they had decided that war was not a good thing and that they were leaving the Church Lads.
And Major Howard was angry, and enraged, and went purple in the face and condemned them, utterly condemned them, and berated them for their ingratitude - but it was no good, the war was over and their life was just beginning. So the butterflies emerged from their chrysalises and fluttered away.
'And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes/Riding shotgun in the skies/Turning into butterflies above our nation' - (Woodstock by Joni Mitchell)
Much Coming of Age fiction does contain a strong autobiographical element. In Julian Barnes's Metroland the main character, Christopher, clearly based on the author himself, describes how when visiting The Biblioteque Nationale in Paris he sees a copy of Lawrence Durrell's Mountolive on a wicker chair in the cafe where he is sitting. 'Mountolive!' he says aloud and of course he then falls into conversation with the French girl, Annick, to whom it belongs. If you've read the book you know the rest of the story, if you haven't well...
Art imitates life, suggests George Eliot, so pull out those old notebooks, dig into your hard drives, for you never know you might have the next The Catcher in the Rye or The Member of the Wedding there.
Peter Leyland 1/08/20