Posts Tagged ‘Siddhartha’

Hermann Hesse: Early Novels

January 28, 2021

        .    I went back into my hippy past a few weeks ago with my re-reading of Richard Brautigan, and I’ve done some more by re-visiting Hermann Hesse; a good many of the novels I haven’t touched for getting on for half a century, apart from Siddhartha and Narziss and Goldmund. But way back in the day I hoovered up everything I could find as soon as it appeared in paperback: what attracted me to it?

In the end, Hesse writes bildungsromane, and I think it was the fact that I was at that stage, too, which drew me to him: young people (men) beginning to explore the world and discover and assert their identity, and realise that meaning and satisfaction in life had to be striven for, they didn’t just happen along. And this time around, I’ve dug into the author’s life-story too, and discovered that so much of what he recounts as fiction in the early novels is in fact thinly disguised autobiography; he writes so movingly and effectively at times because he’s been there…

Peter Camenzind, his first novel, was written when he was 27. A young boy is taken out of his rural milieu to continue his education: it becomes evident he has the potential to become a poet; he struggles with feelings, and with relations with women, and his one deep friendship, with another man, clearly has homosexual undertones, though nothing is spelled out openly. The sudden loss of this friend leads to self-isolation, drinking, and a feeling of aimlessness in his life; nature becomes a restorative, a curative for the problems of individuals and the world. In the end, he learns that all that one can rely on is oneself; friends leave, or die, and the women we desire are unattainable, in the sense that we build up expectations that can never be fulfilled. So he returns home to his village and his roots and settles back into his original world, with the feeling that leaving briefly was an experience, but not where he was meant to go.

The Prodigy (sometimes titled Under The Wheel in English) is highly autobiographical: an academically bright young boy from a simple background is hot-housed academically by father, teachers and ministers; he is clearly unhappy being gradually taken away from his childish pleasures and pastimes, symbolised by some beautifully lyrical passages about fishing. He must fulfil others’ dreams and expectations at college, and fill his head with purposeless and dull learning. He best friend is a rebel to whom he fails to remain loyal, and over-studying takes its toll and makes him physically ill: he has a nervous breakdown. After he has dropped out, to the disgust of all his formerly eager mentors, he contemplates suicide, then takes up an apprenticeship, and accidentally drowns while drunk. It’s an incredibly sad and very depressing read.

Gertrude is the story of a man, crippled as a teenager in a tobogganing accident, who regards himself as marked for life and doomed to unhappiness as a result. He becomes a very successful composer, and a loner, choosing to avoid others and their companionship, apart from another man who is a successful opera singer and philanderer, who eventually marries the woman to whom he was attracted. That marriage brings misery to both, and our hero can only watch in dismay from the sidelines. It’s a story of discovering where contentment, meaning and satisfaction may be found, and how hard these are to achieve; they seem to come with time, after much isolation and suffering.

At times I have been finding Hesse’s style in these early works rather too gushing, and over-effusive in his descriptions of nature and the ways it affects his characters. He often writes extremely wooden and unconvincing dialogue too (I can’t imagine that it’s merely the result of poor translation). And yet he writes with a wisdom about all ages and stages of life, even when he hasn’t experienced those stages himself; he has his characters reflect with maturity on their lives and predicaments, and it’s clear that what I found astonishingly deep, as well very romantic – in the German sense – in my younger days must have come from deep within the writer himself. In my twenties, I had some idea of what I was looking for; now I am pushed to reflect on where I have reached.

Hermann Hesse: The Journey to the East

October 17, 2020

     I decided to take this one down from the shelf – last read 1975! – partly because I’m in the mood to revisit Herman Hesse at the moment, partly prompted by a fellow-blogger. My edition has a pretty weird introduction by Timothy Leary (!) who wants to persuade us that Hesse must have taken psychedelic drugs because of some of the experiences he writes about… I found this weird, and was then rather surprised by my reaction; I’m getting old.

A mysterious League enables various people to engage in a journey to the east, which appears to involve movement through space and time, too, and also links in various personalities from the early twentieth century with whom Hesse was familiar (I was surprised to find Ferdynand Ossendowski in there as a possible ‘fellow-traveller’). It’s obviously a metaphorical journey – perhaps too obviously – and as I read on, I found the story mirroring the rather more comprehensible journey we read about in Siddhartha. But the focus is different. And a strange distancing effect is created by the shifting sense of time and space.

Perseverance and steadfastness in the journey are stressed, but Hesse seems to be rather more concerned about becoming lost on the way, and the fact that he fairly obviously writes himself into the narrative through his initials is an autobiographical hint, at least to this reader.

The entire narrative shifts suddenly when certain objects and documents apparently vital to the travellers are misplaced, stolen or disappear, and I found myself thinking of Siddhartha’s wariness of teachers, in the sense that one should find one’s own way rather than someone else’s; the absence of these papers throws the narrator completely off course, and we suddenly find him engaged in a clearly futile attempt to write an account of his journey: why must he do this? Would he become a teacher, one of those whom we have learned that we should become wary of? HH’s realisation of his utter failure at this point leads him to suicidal thoughts, and I realise we are at the same point reached by Siddhartha after his years of enjoying worldly success and wealth, and then perceiving that he has completely lost sight of the journey he is supposed to be on.

The story’s ending becomes increasingly hallucinatory and Kafkaesque (and we should remember that Kafka was also writing in the early twentieth century), and the final moments of revelation are an obvious reprise of the final pages of Siddhartha.

I’m glad I came back to it; equally I’m glad it only took up an evening of my time, and I can mentally file the knowledge that Siddhartha is a far better representation of our journey to meaning and purpose…

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