Children Are Civilians Too
Bodies and Shadows
Rosshalde is Hesse’s fourth novel, published in 1914, and while it doesn’t offer the peculiar excitations of Steppenwolf or the metaphysical incitements of Magister Ludi, it is a good example of what I would have thought the slightly faded charm of early Hesse: an essentially gemütlich mixture of idyl and anguish, of talk about life and talk about art, with some talk about the exotic East thrown in.
Johann Veraguth is a famous artist who hardly exists at all as a man. He lives on a beautiful estate, Rosshalde, coolly estranged from his wife and elder son, and the family is held together by Pierre, the seven-year-old son, loved by both mother and father and uneasily shared by them. Rosshalde is divided into two parts: the husband is master of his studio, the lake shore, and the former game preserve, while the wife is mistress of the house, the lawn, and the groves. Little Pierre moves freely between the two territories: “in the eyes of his mother’s visitors and guests he was the son of the lady of the house, and in the eyes of the gentlemen who sometimes came to Papa’s studio and spoke French, he was the painter’s son.”
Those dualities so prominent in Hesse’s work (see NYR, September 12, 1968) have already reared their not especially instructive heads. The chief duality here seems to be the old one of life and art which Thomas Mann treated so much more comprehensively, pointedly, and professionally.
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work…
Veraguth’s perfection can only be of the work:
He, who never sent a bungled drawing or painting out into the world, suffered deeply under the dark weight of innumerable bungled days and years, bungled attempts at love and life…. With grim tenacity, he had almost succeeded in giving his art the richness, depth, and warmth that his life had lost. And now, girded in loneliness, he was as one enchanted, enmeshed in his artistic purpose and uncompromising industry, too healthy and resolute to see or recognize the poverty of such an existence.
“Healthy and resolute…” It is a little difficult to feel much anxiety over Veraguth’s condition; much easier to feel sorry for his wife, who has no work to be perfect or even less than perfect in. But the painter’s friend, Burkhardt, turns up and urges Veraguth to abandon his non-life and return with him to India (actually, according to internal evidence, Malaya):
Look, you’ve forgotten what the outside world is like. You sit here buried, engrossed in your work and your unhappy marriage. Take the step, break away from all that; you’ll open your eyes and see that the world has thousands of wonderful things to offer you. You’ve been living with dead things too long, you’ve lost your contact with life.
It is clear that Pierre is all that keeps Veraguth at Rosshalde—whether to leave Rosshalde is necessarily…
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