The novels of the German author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) are lyrical and confessional and are primarily concerned with the relationship between the contemplative, God-seeking individual, often an artist, and his fellow humans.
Hermann Hesse was born on June 2, 1877, in Calw, Württemberg. His father worked for the publishing house directed by his maternal grandfather, Hermann Gundert, a scholarly Orientalist. Both his parents, as well as his grandfather, had seen service as missionaries with the Basel Mission in the East Indies. The atmosphere in which Hesse grew up was therefore pious, but the household was nonetheless an educated one and relatively urbane.
In 1893 Hesse won a scholarship to the Protestant Theological Seminary at Maulbronn; but he soon rebelled against the intellectual and clerical discipline there and ran away. This experience of flight was evidently of decisive significance in his imaginative development, and it recurs in one form or another in almost all his major works. After some time at another high school and a short period as a machine-shop apprentice, Hesse found employment in the book trade. He read widely in German and foreign literature and began to write lyric poetry, sketches, and stories. His first published works, Romantische Lieder (1899) and Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht (1899), are mannered tributes to the neoromantic conventions of the day, pseudoexotic, melancholic, and tinged with irony.
The novel Peter Camenzind (1904) made Hesse's name. An attempt to overcome decadence by portraying the cure of a melancholic outsider by means of altruistic activity and a return to nature, Peter Camenzind presents an early, half-formed version of that life pattern found in almost all Hesse's novels. It was followed in 1905 by Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel), a contribution to the then fashionable subgenre of "school novels." The book portrays the miseries and sad decline of a sensitive youth crushed by the intellectual demands and unfeeling attitudes encountered in school. In this novel Hesse divides his interest, as so often in his later work, between two characters, Hans Giebenrath who regresses and dies, and Hermann Heilner who breaks out and lives, albeit by eventually finding a compromise with the bourgeois world.
Hesse himself had compromised by marrying and settling down in Gaienhofen on Lake Constance. He lived there until 1912, when he moved to Berne. He published a number of short stories and novellas: Diesseits (1907), Nachbarn (1908), and Umwege (1912) are collections of tales of small-town and country life, after the manner of Gottfried Keller. Knulp, three whimsical sketches of the vagabond existence, dates from this period, as do the full-length novels Gertrude (1910) and Rosshalde (1913). All these works show Hesse as a careful and talented writer, with a keen psychologist's eye and a supple style, but they rather mute the serious conflicts incipiently suggested by his first two novels. Hesse's journey to the Malayan archipelago in 1911 is, however, some indication of his inner restlessness. The interest in Oriental cultures which originated in his childhood now takes deeper root.
During World War I there occurred an extremely sharp break in Hesse's life and work. His third son, Martin, fell seriously ill, his wife began to show the first signs of mental disease, and his family life disintegrated. The war, in which he was directly involved only through his relief work for German prisoners of war, shocked him terribly; he denounced it at its outset and was in his turn denounced by the German press as a pacifist traitor. He never returned to live in Germany and became a Swiss citizen in 1922. In 1916 he underwent a course of Jungian analysis in Lucerne.
"Demian" and "Siddhartha"
The product of all these diverse traumatic experiences was the novel Demian, published pseudonymously in 1919, which won the Fontane Prize for first novels (Hesse returned the prize and later admitted his authorship). Demian reestablished Hesse in the forefront of German letters and perhaps rescued him from a creeping mediocrity in his creative work. It deals with the "awakening" of a youth, Emil Sinclair, under the influence of an older boy of mysterious presence and powers, Demian. Critics have shown that the primary key to the book is the structure of a typical Jungian analysis. But the novel contains gnostic as well as overtly psychoanalytic material and works out mythical and biblical motifs, such as that of the Prodigal Son.
From this point onward in Hesse's work discrimination between the psychoanalytic and the religious elements in his symbolic motifs and patterns is extremely difficult. Siddhartha (1922) is a hagiographic legend, but it is also a very personal confession which reworks the psychological material of earlier novels in a fresh garb; and the mystical conclusion of Siddhartha proves on examination to be as much Christian as Buddhist or Hindu.
Between 1916 and 1925 Hesse composed several of his most distinguished novellas, notably Iris (1918), Klein and Wagner (1920), Klingsors letzter Sommer (1920; Klingsor's Last Summer), and Piktors Verwandlungen (1925; Pictor's Transformations ). In 1919 he had taken up residence in Montagnola near Lugano, entirely alone and impoverished, resolved to live now only for his literary work. Iris is a beautifully wrought allegory on the search for selfhood, Klein und Wagnera study of sexual conflict, loss of identity, and rediscovery of self, Klingsor's Last Summera series of passionately colored sketches of the life of a declining artist, and Pictor's Transformations an exotic fairy tale designed to impart a vision of the ultimate androgynous unity and of eternal change and flow.
Meaning of "Steppenwolf"
This insight into a divine reality and unity which may be glimpsed for a moment when the usual order of the mind is momentarily shaken or dissolved, in some trauma (such as Klein's suicide) or in sexual or artistic experience, is the positive vision which Hesse seeks increasingly to convey. Thus Der Steppenwolf (1927) should not be mistaken, as it often is, for a pessimistic and desperate work; on the contrary, this account of a psychopathic outcast, close to suicide, who finds remission and self-insight through friendship with a prostitute, dancing, and drugs is a re-assertion of the omnipresence of the higher reality for those sensitive to it. The "golden thread" of this reality is often discernible, especially in the music of Mozart or, indeed, the life and art of any of the "Immortals"—Goethe, Leonardo, Rembrandt, among others. Steppenwolf is formally the most consummate of all Hesse's books, an extremely intricate experimental novel. It reflects something of its author's experiences in the 1920s, after the failure of his second marriage.
In 1930 Hesse published Narziss und Goldmund, a long picaresque work in a medieval setting, which is his most overt treatment of the relentless struggle between the mind and the senses. By no means his best novel, Narziss und Goldmund has been one of his most popular; sometimes trite, it has, however, an undercurrent of pain, failure, and bitterness which is often overlooked.
In 1932 appeared Die Morgenlandfahrt (The Journey to the East), an ironic allegory on the subject of the inner pilgrimage, full of secret allusion and whimsical onomastic games; extremely elusive, The Journey to the East subsumes with anecdotal brevity the spiritual experience of several decades.
"The Glass Bead Game"
Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; The Glass Bead Game), Hesse's longest and perhaps his most famous novel, took 11 years to write. It is concerned with a futuristic society in which a scholars' utopia, Castalia, exists as a separate province with the task of preserving the austere ideals of the Spirit and the unsullied service of Truth, as well as training teachers to work in the schools of the outside world. The protagonist, Joseph Knecht, is followed through his years of training until he is eventually elected Master of the Glass Bead Game, a game "with all the contents and all the values of our culture, " which is Castalia's supreme cult. Through the game an element of art, and of numinous experience, infiltrates a sphere which has become too much the province of the intellect.
The Glass Bead Game depicts Knecht's gradual insight into the decadence which has overtaken Castalia and his apostasy as he resolves to leave for the outside world and to become a simple teacher. The ambivalence of this delicately written and elaborate novel lies in the question whether Knecht's act is a true breakthrough to ethical action or the expression of an unrepentant individualism, or both. Ethical and esthetical, saintly and artistic elements blend and separate deceptively again and again in this novel as throughout Hesse's work.
Hermann Hesse's poetry has been published in several collections, for example, Gesammelte Gedichte (1942), and has been widely anthologized. There is also the remarkable collection of "Steppenwolf" poems, Krisis (1928). In his verse he is generally more derivative and less searching than in his prose works. Having married for the third time in 1931, he continued to live in Montagnola, devoting a good deal of his time to a voluminous correspondence, particularly with young people interested in his work and philosophy of life. Hesse was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in literature. He died in August 1962.
Further Reading on Hermann Hesse
There are three studies of Hesse in English: Ernst Rose, Faith from the Abyss (1965); Theodore J. Ziolkowski, The Novels of Hermann Hesse (1965); and Mark Boulby, Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art (1967). Rose gives a short introduction to the author, Boulby a detailed analysis of eight novels and several novellas, and Ziolkowski a study of Demian and later novels, also placing Hesse in the contemporary literary scene. For bibliographical material see Joseph Mileck, Hermann Hesse and His Critics (1958). Ralph Freedman, The Lyrical Novel (1963), illuminates the analogies between Hesse, André Gide, and Virginia Woolf.