When Karen and Simon chose 1920 as the next year for their biannual book club, they could have little idea of the circumstances in which we would be reading those books from a hundred years ago, in the face of a global disaster the repercussions of which can only be guessed at. The authors, however, would know something of that sort having just emerged from the First World War, many of them having participated in that conflict. Though Hermann Hesse is widely regarded as a pacifist, he attempted to enlist in 1914 and, having been found unfit for the front line, instead found a role looking after prisoners of war. In 1920 he published two books: Klingsor’s Last Summer, reflecting his growing love of painting, and Wandering, a collection of notes and poems on travelling, with his own illustrations scattered throughout.

Wandering (the translation is by James Wright from 1972) begins with Hesse’s antipathy to borders (though he had volunteered for his country, he was consistent in rejecting nationalism):

“If there were many people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptable than borders.”

This abstract reference to war is a reminder that his journey would not have been possible even two years before. Generally the war sits behinds the stories he tells, an implicit contrast, though in one chapter, where he crosses a bridge he also crossed in war-time, it is mentioned explicitly:

“But this was all nothing, my love for the sagging wet bushes was just sentimental, and reality was something else, it was the war, and it rang through the general’s mouth, the sergeant’s mouth, and I had to run, and out of all the valleys of the world thousands of others had to run with me, and a great time had dawned.”

For the most part, though, Hesse is interested in the experience of wandering, describing himself as a “nomad”: “I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic.” Rather than root his love in what he knows, he applies it to what he sees as he travels:

“We separate love from its object, love alone is enough for us, in the same way that, in wandering, we don’t look for a goal, we only look for the happiness of wandering, only the wandering.”

We find a similar conviction in the poem ‘Glorious World’:

“A mountain range in the night,
On the balcony a silent woman,
A white street in the moonlight curving gently away
That tears my heart with longing out of my body.”

This is not to say Hesse has no doubts about his wandering. At times he longs for the more settled life of home:

“Like the day between morning and evening, my life falls between my urge to travel and my homesickness.”

In one chapter he speculates at length about a possible life as a priest on sight of a rectory:

“How wonderful it would be for a man like me to make his home here, to be a priest!”

In the end, however, he decides he would not be able to change, “I would only be the same inconstant, harmless wanderer, the same man I am now.” Rather than adopt a single role, Hesse enjoys the freedom of imagining himself living different lives:

“I want my soul to be a wandering thing, able to move back into a hundred forms. I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and tress.”

In this imaginative wandering we see the mind of the writer.

Wandering is not relentlessly optimistic, however. In the chapter ‘Rainy Weather’, for example, Hesse talks about “how meanly and maliciously the clouds hang on the mountains” leading him to feel:

“How stupid and comfortless everything is, everything that comes into my mind.”

These moods are discussed later when he refers to “the dark waves in my life, which I fear, come also with certain regularity.” It is this honesty, of course, which makes Hesse worth reading, the sense that we are being allowed access to his thoughts rather than a censored version recollected later.

Wandering is a slight collection of under a hundred pages – and many of these taken up with illustrations – but it is a tonic for our times, a hymn of praise for journeys with no purpose in our new utilitarian world.

“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”


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8 Responses to “Wandering”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    We certainly couldn’t have foreseen things, could we Grant? The world is suddenly very different from 6 months ago, and also from 1920. I envy Hesse his wanderings – ambling through the country or travelling to the sea seem impossible dreams right now! I haven’t read this one for many a decade but it’s very appealing!

    • 1streading Says:

      It felt like a real contrast to present conditions, but at the same time it’s interesting to think of books from this time as a reaction to the First World War which must have presented a similar shock to Europe at the time.

  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    That’s funny, I just finished Narcissus and Goldmund, which is also “a hymn of praise for journeys with ni purpose,” written a decade later. Or I guess the argument is for the purpose of the purposeless.

    Anyway, interesting to read about Hesse as proto-Goldmund.

    • 1streading Says:

      An argument that only applied to a minority at the time, but was then adopted by a larger part of society in the 60s. I wonder if we are seeing the beginning of the end of the idea that travelling (as middle class people call going on holiday) is a good thing in itself?

      • Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

        If the Spanish Flu or the Aisan Flu (1957) and the oh let’s say Black Plague did not kill the idea of travelling, this thing sure won’t. We have had pandemics before.

        The Goldmund character is almost a hippie. It was obvious by the real hippies of the 1960s got so much out of Hesse.

      • 1streading Says:

        I wasn’t thinking just of the pandemic, but of the climate emergency as well. But I suspect you’re right, nothing will change.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    What better in the current lockdown that a little vicarious meandering in the company of a favourite author? It sounds like a strangely fitting read for the current times. I’m rather ashamed to say that I’ve never read Herman Hesse; but then again, I guess we all have our blind spots. 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      I mainly read Hesse when I was much younger – I think that’s probably the best time to read him, though it would interesting for you to try him now just to see what you think.

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