Rebel With a Literary Cause


“Rebel With a Literary Cause” was published in the Guardian Books Blog on 2 May 2007:

Rebel With a Literary Cause

From Goethe to Rimbaud, a new book from Jon Savage reminds us of teenagehood’s bookish origins.

Rupert Brooke

Through some felicitous coincidence, a stage adaptation of Absolute Beginners recently premiered in London just as Teenage was hitting the bookshelves. Colin MacInnes‘s late 50s cult masterpiece — often described as Britain’s answer to Catcher in the Rye — takes up the teenploitation motif almost exactly where Jon Savage teasingly leaves off. Mirroring the transitional nature of its subject, Savage’s Teenage chronicles the “creation of youth” from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the second world war. Like Peter Pan, this “prehistory” is frozen “in a state of suspension, of permanent becoming.” In its end — the birth of the modern teenager circa 1944 — is its beginning.

Savage has produced a work of cultural history, not literary criticism, but he clearly shows that the proto-teenager was essentially a literary construct. Chatterton and Goethe provided the live-fast-die young blueprint which — via Rimbaud’s disappearing act and Rupert Brooke‘s shattered beauty — would lead to the James Deans and Kurt Cobains of later years.

Premature death is one way of burning always with the hard, gem-like flame of youth and avoiding the dreaded pipe and slippers. The other is fiction. Apropos of Alain-Fournier (who, incidentally, is not mentioned in Teenage although Raymond Radiguet gets a look-in), Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between the “novel of arrival,” that charts the young protagonist’s journey to maturity, and the “novel of adolescence” where adulthood is rejected in favour of extended adolescence. Le Grand Meaulnes, that supposedly archetypal coming-of-age novel is, in fact, a “refusal-to-age story” — a Bildungsroman that builds nothing.

It is precisely this literature of arrested development that holds the key to the dark secret lurking at the heart of Savage’s Teenage. Shifting skilfully from biography to fiction and back again, he makes much of the obvious parallels between Dorian Gray and Peter Pan: the “Faustian nature” of the “contra naturem” contracts and the death instinct that derives from the cult of eternal youth. We learn, for instance, that Rupert Brooke — a devotee of Wilde who was obsessed with J M Barrie‘s “tragic boy” — believed that the world’s great fault was that “its inhabitants grow old.” Talk about dramatic irony.

“It’s funny,” says Nicky in Noël Coward‘s The Vortex, “how mother’s generation always longed to be old when they were young, and we strain every nerve to keep young.” This transformation was brilliantly analysed by Witold Gombrowicz, the great Polish writer Savage fails to mention and who remains steadfastly ignored in Britain (although Updike, Kundera and Sontag rank among his most fervent admirers).

In the most famous passage of his debut novel, Ferdydurke (1937), Joey Kowalski — an amorphous thirty-year-old — is visited by an eminent old professor who treats him like a kid before marching him off to school where he fits in as naturally as a pupil half his age. If Kowalski embodies the notion (later popularised by Sartre) that identity is in the eye of the beholder, his own sense of immaturity reflects Poland’s cultural inferiority complex which, in turn, comes to symbolise the growing infantilism of society.

Ferdydurke dramatises the emergence of the “new Hedonism” Lord Henry had called for in Dorian Gray as well as the shifting human relations Virginia Woolf observed in the early years of the twentieth century. Gombrowicz was the first to sense how curiously one-sided the age-old battle between old age and young bucks was becoming. Outwardly, he says, we strive for completion, perfection and maturity; inwardly, we crave incompletion, imperfection and immaturity. The natural progression from immaturity to maturity (and death) is paralleled by a corresponding covert regression from maturity to immaturity. Mankind is suspended between divinity and puerility, torn between transcendence and pubescence. Through Kowalski, but also the characters of the schoolgirl and the farmhand, Gombrowicz diagnosed this tantalising tryst with trivia which defines the modern world.

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