Nobody has ever quite known what to do with the German-language novelist Hermann Hesse. Born in 1877 and living until 1962, he rather deliberately refused to experience most of the traumatic events of his culture.
His tiny home town was Calw, in the Black Forest, and he lived mostly in backwaters, and latterly for decades in Switzerland. He only visited Berlin once, and hated it. His work strenuously avoided making any comment on the larger events of the time, insisting on a kind of neutrality. Some readers took him for a mystic Nazi; others for an enemy of German culture; others still for a communist. He was a substantial bestseller in his lifetime, though many more elegant writers, such as the Austrian Robert Musil, thought him simply terrible. After his death, his fame spread beyond the German-speaking world, and the LSD guru Timothy Leary introduced him to America as the author of Steppenwolf, an anticipation of the psychedelic experience and advocate of dropping out. What on earth to make of him?
Hesse was, it seems to me, a perfect example of the autodidact. His childhood was disturbing in the extreme. His family were strict Pietists — his mother had important missionary experience in India. In this moral atmosphere, debate about what was wrong with Hermann started early. His parents were the sort who saw disaster wherever they looked. When they moved house, Marie Hesse said perfectly seriously that their parrot had been made so melancholy that it had started to suffer seizures. Her son was observed with the same beady eye for possible catastrophe. A number of schools were tried. At 15, Hermann ran away with a stolen revolver, threatening suicide. (Promises of suicide went on being made by Hesse throughout his life.) A mental asylum was found. Hesse’s father wrote a number of letters to potential patrons, explaining that his son was suffering from ‘moral insanity’. Finally, Hesse emerged and tried various apprenticeships — as a watchmaker, and then as an assistant in a bookshop. In his spare time he wrote, of course. His first novel, Peter Camenzind, was a bestseller.
The books on which Hesse’s reputation rests were written after the first world war. His mind by then had undergone a kind of mystical withdrawal, and the seeds of interest in Eastern philosophy, planted in childhood, began to grow. Reactions to the mechanical horror of the Great War took a number of forms in the West, including spiritualism and theosophy. Hesse’s work, including the Buddhist fable Siddhartha and the monastic dialogue Narcissus and Goldmund, drew on non-European cultures, and stood well back from the carnage of contemporary life. His best book, I think, is the extraordinary The Glass Bead Game, written over roughly ten years of Nazi rule, and one of the very few truly successful tranquil Utopias in fiction, an intellectual idyll of unique atmosphere. It is awesomely peaceful; one can only wonder at what Hesse was succeeding in excluding from its beautiful pages.
One excluded factor was women. Hesse married three times, and without a doubt he was a remarkably committed misogynist. His three wives were all forcibly instructed that their job was to enable his greatness. The first, who came from a Basel family of great intellectual distinction, descended into madness. The second, a charming woman from another artistic family of high-achieving women (she was the aunt of the artist Meret Oppenheim), got out quickly. (For some reason, Gunnar Decker thinks she deserves paragraphs of childish abuse from him.) Finally, Hesse settled down with a woman who had written him her first fan letter, aged 14. He instructed her to give up her PhD to serve him more completely. By the time she died, she had become so thoroughly unpleasant in the service of Hesse that no local doctor would come out to observe her final heart attack.
Even among the ranks of star novelists, Hesse was an atrocious egotist. When his mother died, he sent a card to his father:
While I am deeply sorry not to have come to my dear Mama’s funeral, this was perhaps a better outcome for me and for you than if I had come. I was and still am very saddened, yet in the days after the 24th [the day of her death] I have suffered less than in the preceding weeks.
He was probably not much admired or liked by his fellow writers. He must have looked like a crank, with his interest in nudism, theosophy, Eastern religions and vegetarianism, and he wrote so badly. Musil was horrified by ‘the poor and common German… the barrack-room style… the clumsy pacing, the dilettantism, and the unwieldy construction’.Even Thomas Mann, who supported Hesse for years, talked of him in an unmistakably patronising way. When the Goethe prize and the Nobel came his way in the late 1940s, it was largely as a reward for being a Good German in the preceding years. I suppose in the end, he ranks somewhere between Somerset Maugham and the eccentric autodidact mystical English novelist, Charles Williams. The best of Hesse’s novels are unforgettable in their weird conviction.
This is a German biography, and the reader should be prepared for some national conventions of treatment. There is nothing resembling an anecdote from beginning to end. Decker has not seen it as his task to interview anyone who might have known Hesse, apart from one son and one daughter — and no use is made of these interviews. The narrative is almost entirely based on Hesse’s own writings, including his voluminous correspondence, and an occasional quotation from the writings of his mother or his wives. No other source is used until page 140, and they are subsequently very rare.
This is peculiarly damaging in the case of so egocentric a writer as Hesse — we have his view of events in any case. The biographer needs a wider perspective. And it was a great mistake to end the book at Hesse’s death; most of the interesting developments in his reputation took place later, and should have been treated in a final, narrative chapter.
Decker also ignores events in the lives of those around Hesse. When, for instance, did Hesse and Mann meet? We are told in passing that one of Hesse’s sons was adopted as a teenager by the Swiss painter Cuno Amiet. How? Why? Was he his boyfriend, or apprentice, or what? I happen to know who Amiet was — I have a drawing by him — but I bet most readers would want a bit more information about him. This is a book of gigantic length, but still, in order to find out more about Hesse’s closest relationships — painters such as Amiet, his first wife’s family of mathematicians and intellectuals, his friends and the founders of Dadaism, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings — one must resort to Wikipedia.
The author’s commitment is to extraordinarily voluble paragraphs, mostly expanding on Hesse’s already voluble letters, and curiously random flights of tawdry rhapsody:
Venice’s canals were imbued with an aura of music, and love and death merged there in an uncanny way. Even nowadays, Venice remains a spectacle of rise and fall that one can experience with all one’s senses. Time and again, one finds oneself at the centre of humanity’s destiny here and cannot grasp it.
It is surprising, too, that a university press should publish a book with some startling errors. It would be remarkable if, in 1903, Joseph Roth had ‘already voiced the sense of disenchantment that afflicts everyone who crosses a state frontier’. He was nine at the time.
Hesse was capable of writing very badly himself, but he deserves much better than this. He was an interesting figure who, through his refusal to acknowledge his limitations or the times he lived in, brought something entirely new to the novel. I’d like to read a good biography of him.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.