Hermann Hesse: Biography and Bibliography
Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, A Biography
Hermann Hesse became quite well known in Germany as early as 1904, when his short novel Peter Camenzind was published. Since 1945 his renown has spread across the world, yet in spite of his 1946 Nobel Prize his work is somehow not admitted into the canon of “great” twentieth-century German authors. Germans, at least, would be amused nowadays, or mildly astonished, if a foreigner were to mention him along with Thomas Mann, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Kafka, or Brecht.
This is not only because readers now aged fifty or sixty and upward may not have read him since adolescence. Nor is it because the skeptical generations now between thirty and fifty have largely avoided him. Nor can it be entirely because his prose is too readable to be thought difficult enough to be important, although it is probable that younger writers today have not read him at all, let alone learned anything from him. It is partly because the canon has no place for a writer whose work, though a coherent whole, is so curiously mixed. It is sometimes cloying, sometimes profound, then quixotically unironic, then at once brisk, mysterious, and topical, and at other times, if not in his last two fictions, what Germans patronizingly call pubertär—and most of this in a prose that has a mercurial texture all its own.
The mixture does not seem to have vexed either American Hesse scholars or youth-culture fans who adopted him ten years ago. Nor has it embarrassed his Japanese readers (thirteen pages list translations in Joseph Mileck’s inclusive bibliography), or the Italians (thirty-five items in Mileck), or the Persian, Spanish, and Swedish readers. Most literary historians and critics outside Germany have taken the mixture in their stride. Ralph Freedman’s new biography shows that he does much the same, certain subdued doubts aside. It also shows, amply, how the mixture arose: out of a collision, in the tempestuous but wistful character of an exceedingly long-lived author (eighty-five when he died in 1962), between oddly blended family traits and the bloody history of this century.
Hesse was halfway through his twenty-second year when the century began. He had been by no means an ordinary child of the southwestern German Pietist missionary family from which he came—because he resisted, from early childhood on, the ruthless “breaking of self-will” that Pietist culture demanded. So he was sent away to a boarding school when he was six, and his education thereafter was confused, to say the least. He would conform for a few months, then break out, run away, or be sick and despondent. He had a terrible temper. At one stage he was parked in a school for backward children. His parents rigorous but not unkind, found him ungovernable; and yet, as a boy, Hesse seems to have found authority intolerable only so long as it frightened him into feeling guilty. Which was, inevitably, most of the time. There was no pleasure, in that world, and everything outside of work and worship was a cause for guilt.
Even much later, Freedman remarks, he was incapable of enjoying anything wholeheartedly; elsewhere, too, Freedman writes of Hesse’s “constant sense of physical and emotional deprivation.” An odd fish to be found, much later, in the midst of the 1960s Aquarian pleasure-culture of unregenerate young North Americans. But perhaps not so odd, if they found in Hesse a voice of understanding, the guru who understood what they were up against: the dog collar, the hard heart, and behind these the bayonet.
At the age of thirteen Hesse resolved to be a writer. He wrote his first two books when he was an apprentice bookseller, first in Tübingen, then in Basel. He was a priggish and stilted young man, but perhaps no more so than most of his genteel Wilhelmine contemporaries. No sooner had his first successful book, Peter Camenzind, appeared than he married a woman nine years his senior, and settled into a “wilderness” sort of life at Gaienhofen, on Lake Constance. Maria Bernoulli came from an eminent Swiss family and was a gifted pianist. She had three children by Hesse, all boys, and eventually, after long depressions, she went mad. Her episodes and remissions followed Hesse through a large part of his life. It was not until he married Ninon Ausländer, nineteen years his junior, and his third wife, in 1929, that he seems to have met his match, or at least not deceived himself by substituting an image for a person: of the robust thirty-six-year-old Maria he had written in a letter home that she was a “delightful, petite, black-haired, wild sweetheart of a girl,” and “a little girl who reaches only up to my beard and yet can kiss so powerfully that I almost suffocate.” These details are not trivial, for they illustrate Hesse’s constant inclination to edit, or reduce, the “world” of his experience to a psychically loaded image or idea, with which he could then play imaginatively. Precisely the same reduction occurred after his thoroughly discomforting trip to Indonesia and Ceylon in 1911.
The Gaienhofen years shaped Hesse as a mildly disturbed but polite author of Swabian small-town tales and of two novels about desperate but rather dreary artists. He was successful, second-rate, and trapped. The change came in the middle of the First World War. At the start, he was no more opposed to the war than Thomas Mann was. He hoped that Germany would win and save European culture (the gist of German national myth at that time). Yet his refusal to be militant soon came under attack. He dutifully reported for the draft (though living then in Switzerland) whenever his card came up, but was always sent away because his eyes were weak. He did not like it when his wartime journalistic statements, which emphasized (conventionally enough) spiritual purification through suffering, raised a vicious clamor among jingoists.
He worked long and hard hours in Bern, obtaining books and printing literary booklets that were sent to German prisoners of war in France—hoping still that “culture” might prevail against mud and carnage. A partial breakdown brought him into the charge of J.B. Lang, a Jungian psychiatrist; the two men remained close friends until Lang’s death in 1945 (his notebooks were unfortunately destroyed by his daughter). Lang was the model for Pistorius, the church organist, in Demian, the fiction written 1916-1917, which appeared pseudonymously in 1919 and launched Hesse into a trajectory that could hardly have been predicted from his previous work.
Yet Hesse does not quite belong among those writers who extracted from the war, besides horror, disgust, and irony, a distinctly altered outlook, a vocabulary purged of cant, and a new approach to poetry. Doubt toward any pretension to dignity and nobility—that is one attitude Hesse confessed he drew from the war. Also a heightening of the color, tempo, urgency of his prose could be taken for a sign that he too now believed all the idylls were over. But this is not quite the case. Hesse’s utopian fantastic impulse was not subdued but quickened, and its shattering against the historical world was recorded now with just that much more intensity. What did change Hesse, or what he came to create, was a new narrative form, in which his polymorphous interior life could be reflected. This was the fictionalized monologue, with a figured bass of images (later he called this his “private mythology”) that recur in modulations and, from book to book, explicitly or tacitly organize the events.
Hesse was one of the first European writers to be psychoanalyzed, but his analysis was never purely clinical and always broken off. He duly became, during the next twenty years, a self-analytical novelist whose fictions orchestrated psychic crises of his own, and, rather mysteriously, thousands of readers could find their own troubles reflected in those of his protagonists. Published in 1927, Steppenwolf—the biographical background is nicely investigated by Freedman—was his most mazy and spacy monologue of the 1920s. It is a book in which most of the idées reçues of cultural and psychological crisis during the 1920s are anatomized, and its structure has been explored by various critics. Yet however remarkable the book is as prose, the Steppenwolf poems that Hesse wanted to be printed in the book are one-dimensional and vapid. What, indeed, is one to make of this acrobat of self-exploration, whose oscillations between self-esteem and self-disgust, psychological daring, imaginative acumen, morbid ferocity, and intent moralizing make him resemble a hybrid of Isidore Ducasse and (say) Maria Edgeworth?
Freedman’s view of Hesse is such that he would find some of the foregoing remarks as peculiar as I find his allegation that the novels of Hesse’s great forebear, the eighteenth-century novelist Jean Paul Richter, were “often written” in Franconian dialect. Admirably, and loyally, he traces out the maze of Hesse’s movements during the 1920s and 1930s. He portrays the monstrously attractive old Casa Camuzzi in the Ticino where Hesse had an apartment from 1919 onward, until his friends Hans and Elsy Bodmer enabled him to settle in his own house in Montagnola (1931). There were readings and lecture tours, spells in spas, as Hesse’s afflictions multiplied (gout, sciatica, arthritis, toothache, eyeache, frequent influenza). As his interests radiated more and more to the Far East, especially China, his writings also proved attractive to some distinguished contemporary writers, such as Thomas Mann, who still found him controversial, even if his vocabulary was still romantically soft-edged.
Yet for all his eminence Hesse was always in trouble, almost as if he had to fabricate troubles in order to test himself against them—to justify himself. His existence was also fortunate in many ways, not one-sidedly ill-starred in the way that Kafka’s was. Hesse became a Swiss citizen in 1924, but his income depended on royalties from Germany (hence, later, his relief when the Nazis did not ban his books). He wrote narratives, but they were neither realistic nor mythocentric—the main modes of new German fiction in the 1930s. He married Ruth Wenger, with her cat, doggy, and parrot—but saw precious little of her after two months of cohabitation. He lived for a time in Zürich, grindingly sick, and then learned to dance the shimmy, drank heavily for and to the joys of carnival, and had long nocturnal talks with J.B. Lang (“sharing depressions”). Even before he was fifty he felt he was dying of old age.
Though tending to passivity, he was too contemplative to be simply sensual, and his cerebral sensualism, being rather low-powered, shocked only fools and prudes. If not a practical man, he had a sharp sense for money. If not a sensual man, his imago of the artist was otherwise: the erotocentric vital vagrant, exposed to all the joys and horrors, wasting his substance in unreflected life, then incubating experience and hatching it in an essential, abundant, ravishing image that transcends all sense and all intellect—a curiously philistine, or at best romantic notion. Although he was basically a confessional writer, his self-revelations are (to us now, it must be said) mostly moderated by a discretion which used to be the mark of civilized persons. Hesse never was the sort of untamed self-eviscerator whom Henry Miller and Timothy Leary thought they were shepherding into the scene when they praised him.