Failure to Turn

Taking issue with a film starring Timothée Chalamet.

I have no recollection of coming of age. Being 65, I have to assume it happened. Or is the lack of memory accurate, because it hasn’t happened (yet)? I’m reminded of my father’s reassuring claim, when I was a 15-year-old, horribly self-conscious about being so skinny, that I would ‘thicken out’ soon enough. Well, half a century later I’m still waiting for that to happen. There is a considerable body of evidence that this thickening does indeed happen to many people, earlier or later, but when it comes to coming of age is it possible that it’s not just me, that it often fails to happen because… ‘it’ doesn’t exist?

I suppose ‘it’ refers to the passage from innocence to experience, from ignorance to knowledge, from a sense of wonder to an awareness of loss. Sometimes it goes further. As a result of this process, a boy becomes a man, a girl a woman; you become yourself. Does that sound familiar? I bet it does, and that’s why a number of correctives are in order because that ‘it’ might refer less to something in life than to a genre of film or book, in which the experiences of a boy becoming a man, a girl a woman and so forth, are depicted. More specifically, coming of age means watching films or reading books about a phenomenon called ‘coming of age’…

Watching Call Me by Your Name I knew I was watching a coming of age film – which means, I suppose that, contrary to what I said earlier, I had come of age, because coming of age means being able to recognise a coming-of-age film. Actually, Call Me by Your Name is a bad example because that film goes out of its way to tell you what it’s about, so that you can get it even if you haven›t come of age. Near the end, you will recall, there is an emotional scene when the heartbroken boy is consoled by his father who tells him that he once had a similar experience of intense same-sex infatuation.

But then the director, Luca Guadagnino, blows it totally. For most of its duration this scene is shot in such a way that we see the dialogue unfolding in a tender and dramatic situation. But then we cut to a close-up of the dad’s face and he addresses the camera directly so that he’s speaking to us, delivering a little lecture, explaining the moral of the film. It is a strikingly inept moment but – and here’s the nice twist – you can only recognise it as such if you have come of age cinematically, and are able to see how what is going on undermines the case that is being made, since if there is such a thing as coming of age, one element of that involves a dislike of being lectured at.

So, here’s a crucial point. Even though I said at the outset that I hadn’t come of age, I clearly had in this regard. Four further points can now be made, if you’ll forgive a little lecture. You can come of age without realising it. And there is not a single coming of age moment, there are many of them, taking many different forms, at different times and speeds in relation to various aspects of life, over an extended period of time. You can come of age gradually – which undercuts the idea of coming of age as a kind of conversion experience. And you can keep coming of age, even after you have… come of age!

The essential thing to reject is the idea of the turning point, the before-boy, after-man, the before-and-after-eating-the-apple aspect of it, as though only this change counts: the disillusionment, the heartbreak, the knowledge of the world, after which one is altered and somehow rendered either watertight or permanently warped by too much water having poured in. It’s a re-staging of the Fall. Of course there are turning points in life but, to adapt what A. J. P. Taylor said of Germany in 1848, the typical reaction at such critical junctures is to fail to turn. There are milestones – first orgasm, first kiss, first time you have sex, first time you take ecstasy or pass your driving test or whatever – but after these have been achieved what you see up ahead are more milestones (more tests!) extending all the way to dusty death.

A few years ago, elbow surgery made me think that I’d entered a phase of old age and physical frailty. But then, as a result of diligently applying myself to physical therapy I was able to play tennis again, and there was such an easy transition from unbelievably boring physio to the gruelling tedium of the gym that I entered a phase of enhanced physical well-being, and was in better shape than I was before the surgery. So even decrepitude – as definitive a coming of age as there can be – turned out to be an illusion, or a premonition. The next phase, though, is going to be from late middle age to real old age, and a gradually defining sense of infirmity and decline.

But when it comes, that too, I bet, will be incremental, and subject to all sorts of rallies and revivals, marked by the slow abandonment of things one used to do and care about, including how one looks and what one wears. I suspect that this will be defined not by a profound realisation or insight into the human condition – another construct? – but something like a weakening resolve to keep my neck free of fuzz or forgetting to pluck hairs from my ears. (Actually, maybe that was my coming of age moment, when I noticed that men of my age had hairs growing in their ears, and turned this observation into a form of self-reflection and consequent self-depilation.)

Other changes will be so gradual that it will probably be impossible to isolate a moment when the transition occurs. So it will go on, until the deathbed, the last gurgle and rattle of breath, what Philip Larkin called ‘the only end of age.’ That is the true coming of age experience but I wouldn’t be surprised if, even then, many of us won’t recognise it as such unless our last thought is something along the lines of ‘How strange, I never did come of age. Maybe in the afterlife…’

You've reached the end. Boo!

Don't panic. You can get full digital access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Get Offer

Register for free to continue reading.

Or get full access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Register Free Subscribe

Already a member? Sign In.