When Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings declared a Hermann Hesse Reading Week I was intrigued to take part. I’d read a great deal of Hesse’s work in my twenties but little since; it seemed an opportunity to reacquaint myself with a writer who had once been (and perhaps still would be) one of my favourites, and was certainly among my earliest introductions to literature in translation. My first instant was to reach for the old Penguins and Picadors lying rather neglected on my book shelves, but a quick check told me there was one Hesse novel which I had not yet read, an early work for 1910, Gertrude, still in print from Peter Owen in a translation by Hilda Rosner.
Gertrude is a novel of love, but it is not a love story. The narrator, Kuhn, is a musician and composer, and it difficult not to see, in his description of his progress, an element of Hesse’s relationship with literature, for example as he struggles to discover the confidence needed to compose his own work:
“I now saw that with all my modesty I had considered myself some kind of genius and had considerably underestimated the toils and difficulties encountered along the path to an art. Moreover, my composing was seriously affected for I now only saw mountains of difficulties and rules in the smallest exercise.”
Only when he receives the friendship and support of the singer Heinrich Muoth does his career as a composer begin to take off. Muoth provides a contrast to Kuhn, extrovert and charismatic, yet somehow never at peace with himself, and plays an important part in Hesse’s real theme, the destructive nature of love.
We see love literally as a destructive force in the early pages of the novel when the narrator, flattered by the attention of a pretty woman in his youth, attempts a reckless toboggan ride and, in the resultant accident, injures his leg so badly that he limps for the rest of his life. From that point on he is reticent with women, reluctant to reveal his deeper feelings. On the other hand, Muoth’s confidence extends into his relationships with the opposite sex, whom he easily attracts and discards. The narrator is shocked when Muoth’s lover, Lottie, confesses her fear to him that Muoth no longer loves her:
“ ‘Finally he began to address me formally. I would have preferred him to beat me again.’
I was stunned. ‘Beat you!’
Lottie laughs at his innocence; he finds it difficult to reconcile his friendship with behaviour he finds contemptable.
The narrator himself is soon to fall in love with a young woman called (you guessed it) Gertrude. You may also have guessed that he is at first reluctant to trust his own feelings, and then to share them (when he eventually does, it is in a letter). Hesse goes on to create a series of unequal relationships between four of his characters – Muoth, Gertrude, the narrator and Brigitte, the daughter of a friend – in a way that we might associate with a Shakespearian comedy, except Hesse doesn’t find anything funny about it.
Here, Hesse’s two themes combine as Kuhn’s experiences feed into the opera he is writing. In particular he borrows from the contrasting natures of Muoth and Gertrude (who also sing parts for him) in order to create his masterpiece, an early indication of Hesse’s belief in duality. Similarly, the novel includes an exploration of Buddhism in the form of Mr Lohe, an old teacher of Kuhn, who recommends:
“Learn to think more about others than about yourself for a time… You must cultivate a certain indifference to your own well-being.”
Hesse did not regard Gertrude as one of his better books. In attempting to combine a number of different themes, Hesse struggles for clarity and fails to achieve synthesis. A long section on his mother after his father’s death seems to add little to the narrative. Always reluctant to take the initiative, Kuhn is frequently waiting for something to happen, but as the reader is usually one step ahead of him, there is little tension. Gertrude, then, is not the first Hesse novel to pick up, but it is an interesting signpost of the path he was on.