Posts Tagged ‘German novelists 20th century’

Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund

July 1, 2021

     Well, there’s still The Glass Bead Game (if I can face it) which many reckon is the magnum opus, but I think for me Narziss and Goldmund has always been Hermann Hesse’s very best novel. I’ve just re-read it for the fourth time, I think, and with a considerable reluctance, because of the powerful responses it has always awakened in me. Here, Hesse addresses fully and openly the duality of human nature, those urges which can draw us subconsciously or consciously in widely different directions, and which lead the thoughtful on to reflection about the nature of their own personality and psyche…

Hesse does well, I think, to set this novel back in mediaeval times rather than in his own era; this distance suggests a permanence to those traits he is exploring, ie they do not just belong to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when psychology was in its infancy, yet making great strides in understanding what makes us tick, and how we work. True, we are back in a more religious era, but then, I suppose we are talking about the soul, for want of a better word. And there is clearly some biographical significance to the cloister of Mariabronn, which has featured in several earlier novels.

At one level it’s a straightforward story of two men, who become lifelong friends, the one initially a novice teacher at the monastery, the other a student. Very different in character – opposites or complementary depending on how you choose to view them – the bond is very deep, survives separations and challenges; the teacher, a monk, remains forever in the cloister, the student realises that this is not to be his place, and he must engage with the world. The teacher is a man of ideas, thought, the intellect, the pupil is in tune with the beauty and variety and diversity of the world. From this summary it may appear superficially rather trite, a roman à thèse perhaps, yet there is a quality to the friendship, and the two men’s perceptions of the world as presented by Hesse which I have always found very powerful and gripping, and the canvas of lived life and vanishing time, with eternity at the end, never fails to move me.

Narziss (the teacher, whose name intrigues me, and whose realisations and admissions at the very end of the story are powerful and sobering) recognises Goldmund as the other part of himself, in Jungian terms. The teacher looks inward, an intellectual, a thinker; he never leaves the monastery to which he commits his life, eventually becoming its abbot. Goldmund’s memories of his mother are missing: who is she, and why has he blotted her out? Narziss starts his friend on the road to self-discovery; Goldmund leaves the school and friend behind – it’s almost as if he has moved past him – and becomes a vagabond, revelling in the external pleasures of life, and his attractiveness to women. Despite their great closeness, the parting of the friends’ ways is both sad and inevitable, as they have exhausted the possibilities of this stage of their lives.

The sensualist Goldmund follows his whims, travelling freely: he is a true wanderer, like the heroes of some of Hesse’s earlier novels. Eventually, following another call, having seen a carved statue which moves him greatly, he apprentices himself to a woodcarver and produces a couple of masterworks before the call of freedom sets him back on the road. But there is a great artist in him, and throughout the book a heightened attuned-ness to the world around him and its inherent beauty – even in the world of the plague and death, through which he passes. And he ages, learns, becomes wiser, in a different way and a different world from that of his cloistered friend. The fixed and the wanderer become clearly two sides of a personality.

I found an irony in that it was often the call of solitude that drew Goldmund away from periods of fixedness, as a lover, a road-companion, a woodcarver’s apprentice: just like his friend. Throughout, there is a strong distaste for the ordinary, the bourgeois, the comfortable, just as there was in the Harry Haller character in Steppenwolf.

Goldmund is haunted by the apparent futility of life and existence: where is the meaning? What survives of us? He yearns to leave something of permanence behind – which he will, his carvings – and yet, in working to create, he must leave what he sees as living behind.

There are two reunions of the friends, when Goldmund is changed, older and wiser, and when he is dying. I find it very hard reading these encounters. The two men, mentally and spiritually inseparable despite years apart and the great difference between their lives, nevertheless fully understand each other. I found myself wondering why so much of the story was Goldmund’s: he is he one who must travel and explore and change. And yet, it is his friend who learns something incredibly powerful as Goldmund dies: he understands what it means to love…

As I re-read Hesse at this later stage in life, I’m in awe of his wisdom at the same time as I perceive the hidden simplicity of his message (if that makes sense). Hesse’s style here is so much slower, more lyrical, more reflective. I can see him reaching the height of his creativity, approaching to the end of a journey of a kind, which began with his earliest writings.

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