This essay identifies the socialist bildungsroman as a distinct transnational genre of the twentieth-century novel. Contrary to recent theorizations of the bildungsroman that stress the link between narratives of individual formation and the organicist idea of the nation, socialist bildungsromane sought to provide the traditional form of the bildungsroman with a genuinely internationalist horizon. The genre of the socialist bildungsroman encodes the checkered history of socialism, in particular the problematic of a revolutionary temporality as well as the fraught relationship between socialism's internationalist aspirations and the resurgence of the nation and nationalism around the mid-century. The article draws on Georg Lukács's fragmentary theorization of the genre to explore an exemplary range of novels, from Fyodor Gladkov's Soviet Cement (1925) and Jean-Paul Sartre's unfinished tetralogy The Roads to Freedom (1945–49) to Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962) and Peter Weiss's trilogy The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975–81). Building on Alain Badiou's understanding of the militant subject's “fidelity” to the revolution, the article describes the dialectical nature of the relationship between subjectivity and the historical truth event. It concludes that in the socialist bildungsroman the protagonist's formation is imagined as an open-ended process centering on the individual's participation in the revolutionary movement rather than as a fixed (national) telos or a redemptive moment of plenitude.
Toward a History and Theory of the Socialist Bildungsroman
benjamin kohlmann is assistant professor of English at Freiburg University (Germany). He is the author of Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s (2014), editor of Edward Upward and Left-Wing Literary Culture in Britain (2013), and coeditor (with Matthew Taunton) of a special issue on the literatures of anticommunism. He is currently working on two book projects: a transnational study of the socialist bildungsroman and an exploration of the idea of social and economic welfare in British literature circa 1870–1920.
Benjamin Kohlmann; Toward a History and Theory of the Socialist Bildungsroman. Novel 1 August 2015; 48 (2): 167–189. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2882601
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