Posts Tagged ‘The Glass Bead Game’

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.

Growing up or outgrowing?

March 4, 2014

As I look at my bookshelves, I’m struck by the number of books that have been sitting there for many years, often since my student days, aging, crumbling, unopened. And yet they are books that were read and re-read, and loved, all those years ago. Now they do not call to me, and yet, despite needing to clear out and reclaim space, they have not been disposed of. I wondered what was going on…

I have a lot of Herman Hesse‘s novels; my friends and I devoured them at university. I even have a critical work on Hesse that I bought all those years ago, but haven’t read. Steppenwolf we particularly enjoyed, and the complexity of The Glass Bead Game, but it was Narziss and Goldmund that I returned to recently, and re-read (there’s a post about it in the archive); the story of two friends whose lives develop and play out in two totally different ways, narrow yet fulfilling, much wider and perhaps forever incomplete, still tugs at my heart all those years after I first loved it, when I suppose I could see my life all before me and wondered how it would play out. Well, I know now. I know I’ll never part with the book, but as I grow older, reading it is more painful: truly, there is not enough time in one lifetime to experience everything, as Goldmund discovered. Similarly, the story of Siddartha‘s search for the meaning of life speaks to my condition as I look back over time and what I have accomplished.

I still have several of Jack Kerouac‘s books. again leftovers from my student days. I can’t imagine ever re-reading them, as they will also remind me of days I cannot have back. But Kerouac was one of the writers who inspired my friends and me in our explorations of states of consciousness, freedom, and the urge to travel; it’s this last that has stayed with me the longest. I travelled a lot on my own in my younger days and loved it, and in my retirement I have rediscovered this; long may it continue.

Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, which I recently re-read, is another of those books about the need to travel physically and mentally in order to discover one’s true self; it spoke to me years ago, but I wonder if anyone reads it now? Similarly, Sartre‘s The Roads to Freedom trilogy showed me how one needs to create one’s life and existence and meaning, and how hard that is, even though ultimately fulfilling. I suspect I will return to it sometime soon. I only wish I could track down the ancient BBC dramatisation of it, too. Richard Brautigan was froth about sex and drugs and freedom – those hippy days – children’s books for grownup children, but good fun. They should have gone years ago, but haven’t. And D H Lawrence…? His novels were powerful, fascinating explorations of relationships between men and women, women and women, men and men, arguments for sexual freedom without constraints that spoke powerfully when one’s experience of those things was limited; now they seem positively toe-curling, and I cannot ever imagine picking any of them up, except perhaps Sons and Lovers.

This hasn’t been an exhaustive list of writers and books; what has become rather clearer as I’ve thought about them is the way that writers can have a powerful influence on one’s formative years and how one lives one’s life, in a similar way to one’s friends and acquaintances, especially when one’s life is still immature, unshaped. Friends move on and disappear from our lives: the books can stay on our shelves, loved and not forgotten, reminding us of who we were just as effectively as fading photographs.

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