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Tobias Boes’s new book, Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism and the Bildungsroman, is the latest contribution to our understanding of a genre that has been hailed as ghostly or nonexistent, as the product of scholarly imagination founded on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and as little else. German texts are paired with French, English, and Irish exemplars, a strategy that illuminates key shared features (formal and thematic), and in the case of the two chapters on nineteenth-century French and English Bildungsromane, makes a strong argument for broadening our sense of what counts as development.
In the first two methodological chapters, Boes traces the closely bundled lines of affiliation that link the literary history of Bildung to advances in philosophy and natural science (in particular, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s notion of Bildungstrieb or “formative drive” ). We have long known that Karl Morgenstern, a German living in imperial Russia, originated the term Bildungsroman, but few have understood the cosmopolitan environment in which his thinking about the form emerged. Following Morgenstern, whose cosmopolitanism tended to express nationalism as “a kind of performance,” Boes argues for a performative theory of the Bildungsroman, according to which the novel of formation does not reveal a national form “at the end of its plot,” but rather produces it “by means of its mimetic capacities as well as its direct rhetorical address to the reader” (28). Behind his [End Page 541] critique of the classical form is a broader critique of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s “understanding of history as a universal and transformative current,” which Boes sees as “constitutive of historicism as such” (51). This vision of historicism, he argues, has afflicted the scholarship of the Bildungsroman by positing the unity of individual and national Bildung (the soul-nation allegory).
In chapter 3, the first of the analytical chapters, Boes pairs works by Karl Leberecht Immermann and Stendhal in order to explore the problem of historical temporality and its relation to individual formation. He draws on Karl Mannheim’s theory of “generationalentelechies,” the idea that generational time, with its particular unities, provides an alternative to the “epoch,” which has no entelechy and thus no possibility of unity (100). Therefore the characters in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black view the protagonist, Julien Sorel, from different generational perspectives, and this plurality of points of view enables a plurality of possibilities for Bildung, some of which extend beyond the narrow confines of nationalism and national identity. Chapter 4 shows how later novels, like George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Gustav Freytag’s Debit and Credit, use this polyphonic capability to negotiate an increasingly complex cosmopolitan world in which industrial capitalism and imperialism “force the novel of formation to engage with ethnic and geographical difference” and to use “new affective and intellectual formations” (103) that transform classical Bildung into economic development through the establishment of what Boes calls “affective bridges” (105). While a critique of race, imperialism, and liberal democracy informs Eliot’s “cosmopolitan project” (127), it ultimately fails to effectively challenge the dominant narrative of English national Bildung.
Chapter 5 considers James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, which employ “different forms of temporal emplotment” (130), so that “historical consciousness” (100) interacts with “established local ways of expressing collective identity” (130). This dialectical interaction creates the conditions for a form of cosmopolitanism—expressed in new “urban vernaculars” (128)—that brings to light the “previously hidden connections that unite seemingly oppositional national traditions” (130). Boes sees in Joyce’s text an epiphanic mode of narrative that disrupts conjunctive modes of organization and continuity, like those we might find in narrative celebrations of nationalism. From epiphany, an “individuating rhythm” emerges (128), one that enables a disjunctive mode of self-formation. Thus Stephen Dedalus “appears as a monadic entity cutting a solitary path through historical time and into the promise of modernity” (134). The “‘rhythmical’ construction” of the text allows “emergent and cyclical temporalities” to play [End Page 542] equally important...