Saturday, August 25, 2018

"Did We talk about Hesse?" (M-A Berthier on Hermann Hesse)

I recently asked physicist (and novelist) M-A Berther about Herman Hesse.  My missive began innocently enough but prompted a series of interesting reflections.  I began as follows:
Did we talk about Hesse?

Siddhartha was... too Buddhist for me! Fatalistic, preachy... nihilistic in its way. 

Steppenwolf was pretty good. Some loner who likes to go to the orchestra and zone out on music. Kind of “unremarkable” in its bohemian affectations--after living through the end of the 20th century, bohemians, their affectations, and their fantasies... such stuff just doesn't seem that hip, or daring, or wild, or subversive, or whatever it is supposed to be. I recall the novel [Steppenwolf ] becomes slyly amusing as things melt down at the end.
I was young when I read both. I'd probably be unable to finish them now. 

Is The Glass Bead Game good?  In the late-70s, I recall a friend attending Oberlin saying people there were impressed.
M-A's responses are refreshing (and more useful than my off-hand recollections).
Hesse is an interesting case. The two books that are usually cited as his best are Steppenwolf, which to my mind seems both a logical continuation of his earlier work in the Bildungsroman and a foray into a sort of occult mysticism similar to that in Gustav Meyrink's novel Der Golem. (As it happens, in university in 1974, I wrote an essay comparing and contrasting these two novels in a class on 20th Century German literature.) The Glass Bead Game (called peculiarly Magister Ludi in English translation) strikes me as a rather Nietzschean production, an attempt to find something resembling values after we realize that most our accepted systems of values have serious deficiencies. Hesse in a curious way produced a novel that seems to reflect some of the same features (even the literary technique and voice if you will) of his friend Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus—but Mann's book is much darker.

There is an early novel by Hesse, called I think Unterm Rad (beneath the wheel) which is a foray into the German school novel, a peculiar genre that also includes Robert Musil's Törless and Rilke's short story “Die Turnstunde” (Gym Class). Hesse's novel is set in what seems a religious school; Musil's novel and Rilke's story in a military school. All are absolutely ghastly because of the subject matter. Rilke's story and Musil's short novel are well-crafted and intelligent. Hesse's book is "okay," but I feel no compulsion to re-read it.

I have not read anything by Hesse since 1971 or 72. When forced to write that essay comparing his book to that of Meyrink, I relied entirely on memory of Steppenwolf. That being said, I recalled it pretty well (and still do). Steppenwolf may also contain some Expressionist elements, I think, but I wouldn't want to revisit the text. I think it's important as a foundation of 20th century German literature, but I doubt I'll live long enough to be in the mood to re-read it. Alas, one curse of very good memory is the inability to re-read many books unless there is more of value than "what happened next?"

Steppenwolf was, I seem to recall, perched teetering on a fundamental idea of the conflict between the classically-poised music of Mozart and his operas versus the romantic extremism and Angst and Nihilism of Wagner and the philosophy of Nietzsche. Poor Nietzsche -- at times I used to wish that writers of German fiction would leave the poor bastard alone.

The most problematic of Hesse's novels is probably Demian today. Circa 1974, my professor (a septugenarian Czech German) said, "Ladies and gentlemen, when I was your age, this book was a book of my generation. Now, peculiarly, it seems to be one of yours, too..." Well, it was already waning rapidly. One of my high school classmates was reading it in '71 and said at the beginning, "This is one of the most important and thought-provoking books I have ever read." Yawn. I suggested he stick to computer science.

Hesse appealed to earnest adolescents in the '60s and '70s because his concerns seemed important to us at the time. I find a lot of his work pedestrian on recollection. I have nothing against his work, but I would simply remark, "Not my cup of sock squeezings." However, I read a lot of Hesse's novels before I was 17, so I am freed of the necessity to shore up gaps in my erudition.

There was one book by Hesse that, when I read it at 15, struck me as, um, peculiar. I refer to Narziss und Goldmund. It's couched in the form of an historical novel on the Middle Ages. It is comprised of a variety of sexual elements that at the time struck my 15 year old self as vaguely perverse. I may be more tolerant now, but I don't plan to re-read it.

Oh my. Do not push my button marked "Hermann Hesse." I realise that I recall all of the novels and a certain amount of his verse and essays with excessive clarity, god knows why. I caught myself before I embarked on a series of comments on Siddhartha and his novel Die Morgenlandfahrt (Journey to the East) as sort of lame Buddhist mysticism....

I had a "German Literature obsession" at one point, compounded by a superlative professor in the subject at the university level.

Sorry, but to answer your initial question: I do not believe we have ever previously discussed Hesse. Clearly, it's not a good subject to nudge me on. Do not get me started on the Mann brothers or Musil or Döblin, either.

There is a tradition that grew out of German Romanticism of books that dealt seriously with artists: painters, poets, musicians. These culminated in some of the 20th century books by Mann, Rilke, Hesse, and perhaps Musil. (I'm not sure quite how to classify Ulrich in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften). But one of the finer representatives of the tradition was done early by Eduard Mörike: Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag (Mozart's Journey to Prague). These works are often not devoid of a certain Romantic period sentimentality, but when the writer can control it, it's palatable.

Thinking of Mörike always calls to mind that gorgeous throw-away joke in Dinesen's The Deluge at Norderney: "But no human being with a feeling for greatness can possibly believe that the God who created the stars, the sea, and the desert, the poet Homer and the giraffe, is the same God who is now making, and upholding, the King of Belgium, the Poetical School of Schwaben, and the moral ideas of our day." Mörike was a representative of the Poetical School of Schwaben, I think.
M-A Berthier is the author of  Some Rumor of Strange Adventures. It is a challenging novel, remarkably intense, and replete with literary allusions, curious hearsay, and obstreperous satire.  Please click HERE to learn more.

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