Posts Tagged ‘Knulp’

Re-reading Hermann Hesse, part 3

February 24, 2021

I’ve been continuing my re-acquaintance with Hermann Hesse, with mixed feelings…

     The thing I learned from reading Autobiographical Writings (because, although I bought the book in 1975, I don’t appear to have read it) was just how much of what went into his fiction was thinly disguised autobiography, especially the early novels that deal with childhood and early adult life. I found it enlightening reading accounts of episodes I’d previously encountered in fiction. Hesse comes across as an acute observer, someone who reflects and thinks deeply; often, but by no means always, this is very interesting. I did find myself skimming quite a lot of this book, however; there was a lengthy and tedious account of a stay at the spa in Baden-Baden, and another about a journey to Nuremberg, where I thought, ‘who could possibly be interested in this?’ On the other hand, a piece on moving to a new house was fascinating, as was a moving tribute to his last surviving sister after her death. The final piece, his thoughts on Narziss and Goldmund, was really good, as that is my favourite of all his novels and I’m really looking forward to reading it again shortly.

     Klingsor’s Last Summer is a collection of three novellas. There is an oppressive tale of an unhappy schoolboy who has issues with his social class and religion, and is obsessed by his sense of his own sinfulness, even wickedness; his utter misery and self-torture is painful to read. In the second tale a man escapes his wife and marriage by embezzling money and disappearing to Italy; there is the fleeting exhilaration of total freedom in the existential choice he has made and carried out, but he cannot cope with the guilt. He wanders, experiences dreamlike states which verge on madness, craves extinction, rejects the possibility of love and companionship and eventually drowns himself. In the end, I’m afraid I found it all a bit too silly; a similar theme is treated far better in the earlier Knulp.

The final eponymous tale focuses on the power of inspiration to the artist, as well as the power and strength of male friendship bonds. Women are incidental and even friendship is ultimately evanescent; one should live for the moment and delight in the world.

There is a great deal about mental instability and illness in Hesse’s novels, beginning in childhood and shaping or even poisoning later life, and as I’ve discovered, there is a good deal of the writer’s own life and personality woven into these stories. So far, I feel that all of these themes have been treated rather better and more imaginatively in the earliest novels, and when he has reworked them later, they have become oppressive to the point of incomprehensibility at times.

     If The War Goes On is a collection of pieces, mostly but not all about the Great War and its effects and consequences, followed by a couple of pieces after the Second World War. One needs to remember that Hesse, though a German, lived for much of his life in Switzerland and Italy, and thus escaped much of what happened in his homeland. His humanitarianism shines through from the start; he refuses the label ‘pacifist’ though it’s hard to see exactly why. He observes the lack of rationality or sanity in people’s behaviour in wartime circumstances, and expresses a great sense of oppression by war and its implications, despite his distance from it. After 1918 there is the sense of a great tragedy having taken place, along with what now appears to be incredible naivete as he sees the potential for new beginnings after the horrors. Attempting to address the sense of despair in Germans, he urges people to turn inwards… and then, of course, it all happened again, even more horrifically. The best two pieces in the book for me were two brief tales which were basically science fiction, imagining the war still going on in 1920, and imagining the state in total control of individual lives and fates, in the manner of Zamyatin and Orwell. Worth it for those two alone…

To be continued…

Hermann Hesse, continued

February 6, 2021

    .         The recurring themes of Hermann Hesse’s writings become clearer as one works one’s way through his novels: difficulties in personal and marital relationships, close personal bonds of friendships between males, and the search for real meaning in life… so plenty to keep a reader thinking as they go.

Rosshalde is a better novel than the three earlier ones I wrote about here, as there’s a real story, and development of more sympathetic characters. The painter Veraguth endures a broken relationship with his wife and she with him; for him it’s all about his hopes for his relationship with his younger child; he is completely estranged from his elder son. We also gain some insight into the source of an artist’s inspiration. The relationship with his wife is difficult, distant, tormented, the one with his boy is fantasy and wishful thinking. Into all this comes a lifelong male friend whose business is in the Far East and who urges Veraguth to give up on this miserable life and join him in the East

Strong bonds of friendship between men are more successful than marriages – what is Hesse telling us, perhaps about himself, here? Veraguth discovers a new decisiveness as he plans to leave his wife for good, but his future must be totally alone, as his young son dies horribly from meningitis before the departure to the East. Everything has disintegrated, and yet the artist looks forward to new inspiration and creativity abroad. Ultimately every human is alone, and must find and sustain her/himself from inner resources.

Knulp is a set of three short stories about a man who is a lifelong, happy and light-hearted vagabond, with friends and acquaintances wherever he goes. He seems to accept the transience of happiness. Everyone he encounters thinks that, in conventional terms he could have ‘made more’ of his life had he put his mind to it; it’s only in the last story where he is in his forties and dying of tuberculosis that we learn of his disappointment in his first love, which seems to have turned his whole life…

Again, those he is closest to are men. He returns to his hometown to die in familiar surroundings and converses with his God, finding a sense of satisfaction in his existence as it comes to an end. It’s a powerful and moving story, in which we find that Hesse has lost the somewhat lumpen dialogue of the earlier novels, and also has something clear to say: yes, everyone is ultimately alone, and yet, despite disappointments and setbacks, can live a life which has meaning and brings contentment. The road is hard, but this is all we have.

Demian is regarded as a minor masterpiece; I’m not really convinced. Here is another oppressed and miserable schoolboy, and his associate male friends and influences. In this novel, it becomes clearer to the reader, even if not to the hero, that the attraction or desire he feels towards Demian, his mentor, is sexual… For me the story was too laden-down with heavily significant dreams of a Jungian nature. Nevertheless, dreams are important in our lives, and what comes across more strongly as Hesse’s novels develop is the importance of the question of self-discovery and self-actualisation: others cannot lead you, they can only help, accompany, point out possible paths; you have to find and make that journey, which is only yours, yourself, and alone.

The novel was written in apocalyptic times – at the start of the Great War – and resolution is found, in a rather trite way, on the battlefield.

Being something of an obsessive, I have kept a log of every book I’ve read for nearly half a century; just the date I finished a book written in pencil on the last page. I note with interest that I read and then re-read all these books in 1974-75. When I get to the end of this Hesse-binge, I shall try and reflect more fully on what this all meant way back then.

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