A Different Kind of Bildungsroman

Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the February California Book Club selection, offers out-of-the-ordinary epiphanies about self-knowledge.

andrew sean greer, author, writer, less, novel, fiction
Chris Hardy

The classical bildungsroman is the narrative of moral and psychological maturation that defined the 19th-century novel and continues to shape the form today. Almost every bildungsroman builds to a key scene of epiphany, in which the hero realizes a kind of self-knowledge, marking their turn away from youth and their initiation into the adult world. In the English bildungsroman, this knowledge is often romantic: “This is the person whom I should marry.” In the French version, it is typically social: “This is the world as it truly is.” But in either case, acquisition of the knowledge is a kind of achievement—the fulfillment of a tacit promise that with age comes understanding. Undoing the episodic narratives preferred in prior centuries, the bildungsroman implies that a character’s progress is better than their continuity. Why be Odysseus, departing, adventuring, and then returning home unchanged, when you can be David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Harry Potter, ascending and surmounting?

Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, a contemporary rejoinder to the bildungsroman, offers one good answer: ending the story when one grows up might please the young but doesn’t offer much solace to the middle-aged or, for that matter, to anyone with a life plot that doesn’t color inside the lines. The story of protagonist Arthur Less, a gay minor novelist on 50’s cusp, fleeing his longtime lover Freddy’s wedding for a working writer’s version of a world tour, Less is a joyful reclamation of the quest narrative and—fittingly—a cornucopia of Odyssey references. “All you do is write gay Ulysses,” says Freddy—a joking but apt summary of Arthur’s purported oeuvre and of the novel itself, which (spoilers ahead) follows its hero through a meandering series of adventures, only to deliver him home to the man he’s loved and been loved by all along.

While Less is structured as a quest, however, it never totally lets go of one aspect of the bildungsroman: there is transformation here, too, but it is more about surfacing something present but unacknowledged than about becoming someone new. Arthur, we’re told, is a Peter Pan, forever thwarting maturity by remaining tethered to a past version of himself, the boy lover of an older famous poet, still claiming a little of that ingenue glow in middle age by remaining oblivious to the fact that his nine-year fling with Freddy was actually a relationship. By the novel’s end, though, that relationship is unmistakable and our hero, if not reconciled to 50, is at least able to admit he is in its grasp, in ways both trivial and profound. A gray suit now looks more apropos on him than his old favorite vivid blue one does; love no longer feels as if it is always on the horizon. Change happens, whether we initiate it or not.

One of the novel’s early scenes presages this understanding by forcing Arthur to confront a discrepancy in perceptions. In New York, on the first leg of his world tour, Arthur hears his name called on a West Village street and finds himself embraced by a stranger—a “jolly round bald man” full of misplaced certainty in their mutual recognition. Of course, the man is an ex, with whom Arthur almost shared a life. This recognition, though, pales next to the one that follows: “Look at both of us now,” says the ex, “old men!” The only thing worse than seeing an old old lover: realizing you’re now one, too.

Here and throughout the novel, the recognitions that life offers Arthur are as much those of self-knowledge as knowledge of how the world sees him. Possessed of headstrong innocence, buffered by a tendency to assume others’ goodwill, Arthur is repeatedly protected by his own obliviousness, even as it also makes him blinkered, as incapable of seeing his charms as he is his foibles. When, in the novel’s final chapters, he reunites with Robert, the famous poet and partner of his youth, the lesson this aging “Tiresias” imparts is one of perspective. “I look at you, and you’re young,” he tells Arthur. “You’ll always be that way for me. But not for anyone else.… It isn’t all bad. It means now people will think you were always a grown-up.”

If the bildungsroman celebrates the knowledge that comes with adulthood, Less proposes that maybe what we should really hope for in maturity are friends and lovers who show us the best versions of ourselves—self-knowledge but secondhand and softened by care. Another character’s story of true love realized, perhaps, is the novel’s real bildungsroman—it proves as faithful an homage to the genre’s archetypes as you could wish. But what that man offers Arthur—and what Less offers us—is a kind of inversion of the coming-of-age story, an opportunity to recognize knowledge that we’ve held for years and an acknowledgment that such recognition is not an epiphany but a process.

We learn who we are to the world not once but again and again. And maybe, if we’re lucky, there will be people who love us who can help in the teaching.•

Join us on Zoom on Thursday, February 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Andrew Sean Greer will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Less. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the novel. Register here for the event.


Anna E Clark is a writer and teacher in San Diego.
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