Archive for the ‘Hermann Hesse’ Category


April 13, 2020

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.”


March 6, 2016


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.