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  • Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Bildungsroman by Tobias Boes
  • Jason Wilby
Tobias Boes. Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the BildungsromanSignale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. 216 pp. US $ 65 (Hardcover). ISBN: 978-0-80145-177-5.

From Goethe to Thomas Mann and back – this is the route Tobias Boes takes in Formative Fictions, his excellently written genre study of the German Bildungsroman. Although this route is admittedly well-trodden, the interdisciplinary and comparative nature of Boes’ study offers many surprising waypoints. Boes opens his study with a characteristically well-researched discussion of a lecture held by rhetoric professor Karl Morgenstern on October 12, 1819 at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu in Estonia), in which Morgenstern coins the term “Bildungsroman.” Writing in Dorpat, a city officially part of the Russian Empire, yet steeped in the romantic nationalism emerging at the time, Morgenstern characterizes for Boes a core tension in the Bildungsroman tradition between the expression of national forms and the creation in literary texts of what he terms “cosmopolitan remainders,” a tension he would like to resolve by addressing the question of genre from a unique and new angle. In doing so, Boes hopes to address three goals in Formative Fictions: “to examine the changes brought about in the literary history of the Bildungsroman by the advent of new forms of historical consciousness, to document how these changes interact with established local ways of expressing collective identity, and, finally, to show the previously hidden connections that unite seemingly oppositional national traditions” (130). One premise of Boes’ study is that the Bildungsroman tradition is tied tightly to the rise of modern nationalism, and as such it nicely complements both more traditional studies of the Bildungsroman, such as Todd Kontje’s The German Bildungsroman: History of a National Genre, and studies of German political history and nationalism such as Harold Mah’s Enlightenment Fantasies: Cultural Identity in France and Germany, 1750–1914 and Matthew Levinger’s Enlightened Nationalism: The Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806–1848.

Divided into three parts with a total of six chapters, the temporal and geographical span of Boes’ study is daunting, from 1795 to 1947 with waypoints in Germany, England, France and Ireland. The first part of the study consists of two [End Page 256] methodological chapters. The first chapter describes the methodological approach in detail and a theoretical second chapter examines the rise of historicism in the late eighteenth century and its effect on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Comprising the heart of Boes’s study, the second part contains three comparative chapters. Chapter 3, “Epigonal Consciousness: Stendhal, Immermann, and the ‘Problem of Generations’ around 1830,” investigates the ways in which Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Immermann’s The Epigones employ forms of speech similar to what Homi K. Bhabha has termed a “vernacular cosmopolitanism” in order to manifest collective desires to bring order to history via narration; Chapter 4, “Long-Distance Fantasies: Freytag, Eliot, and National Literature in the Age of Empire,” investigates the ways in which Freytag’s Debit and Credit and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda both can be read as, to quote Boes, “complementary responses to a new form of historical emplotment that swept across Europe in a response to sociopolitical changes on a transnational scale” (103); and, Chapter 5, “Urban Vernaculars: Joyce, Döblin, and the ‘Individuating Rhythm’ of Modernity,” utilizes Ernst Bloch’s notion that Modernity gives narrative shape to the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” to consider the ways in which the cityscapes in Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man “present both individuals and local communities with a chance to organize around ‘individualing rhythms’” (153). In his concluding chapter, “Apocalipsis cum Figuris: Thomas Mann and the Bildungsroman at the Ends of Time,” Boes provides an excellent close reading of the parallels between the content of Mann’s Doktor Faustus and the history of Nazi-Germany, arguing that the apocalyptic visions in the novel invert the historicist temporal framework initiated in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister in order to offer readers a potential way out of the...


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