My first encounter with the work of Herman Hesse was through reading his final novel the Glass Bead Game around a decade ago. I bought the paperback version put out by Vintage Classics from the University branch of Blackwells in Manchester. It had a nice, brightly coloured cover with an attractive geometric design, an extremely intruiging blurb, and a pleasant but not too intimidating bulkiness, coming in as it did at close to 550 pages. The book worked incredibly well as an artefact and was very pleasing to look at as it lay on my desk waiting to be read. After all that promise however the actual content left me a little disappointed; to be honest I found it a little dull. Hesse’s obsessions in the Glass Bead Game weren’t really my obsessions, at least not at the time, and it felt like his intense need to pursue his many gripes against modern society got in the way of creating a truly satisfying piece of art. I had been originally turned onto the Glass Bead Game through Erik Davis’s book Techgnosis, but in the end I didn’t find it anywhere near as clever or compelling as he seemed to.
I went on to read Siddhartha a year or so later, purchasing a poorly printed, precariously bound paperback copy in a book market in Rawalpindi (it seems to have attained some kind of cult status in Pakistan, I saw it around a lot.) I enjoyed it more than I had the Glass Bead Game, but it still didn’t make that much of an impact on me.
Fast forward a few more years to when I finally got round to reading Steppenwolf which I picked up in a old paperback version, yellowing and musty with age. I hadn’t really been expecting all that much but instead I ended up being deeply impressed with it.
Steppenwolf details the often fantastic journey of middle-aged, misanthropic, loser Harry Haller from out of the depths of his dark, suicidal misery, via revelatory encounters with beautiful young women, jazz playing saxophonists and strong hallucinogenic drugs, to a total renaissance of the soul (you can see why Hesse hit the height of his popularity during the hippy era).
The Steppenwolf, as Haller likes to refer to himsef, is fixated by the idea that source of all his misery and discontent lies in the perpetual strife between the desires, wants and desperations of the two chief aspects of his split self: one of which he pictures as a human soul, and the other as a lone wolf’s soul. At the same time Haller is absolutely convinced of the futility of seeking redemption within a superficial modern society so completely at odds with his own deepest aesthetic/moral convictions.
At his lowest ebb, however, and finding himself completely overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his state, unable to see any alternative to the razor blade — but realising that he is still terrified to actually go through with it — he meets a young woman in a tavern in whose attentions and considerations he is able to completely lose himself. How much of what follows is fantasy and how much reality, the book is written in first person, the reader is never quite sure. Hesse leaves many clues which could fit either interpretation.
In the end though we’re still puzzled as to the extent to which Haller actively contrives to weave an elaborate myth around his initial and subsequent encounters with this young woman, Hermine, and her peers, in order to utilize the power of these mythic symbols to affect a process of self-healing: it all starts to get very Jungian.
The fact is that through Hermine and her friends the Steppenwolf is able to regain touch with the sensual aspects of his being, as well as all those other facets of the self willfully neglected during decades of bloody minded pursuit of high and lofty aesthetic ideals.
In an important episode of the latter part of the book, Haller undergoes a momentous inner psychic transformation by partaking in a weird transformative hallucination induced by an exotic green concotion and some yellow cigarettes and the focus of which hallucination is the murder of his beloved Hermine. At the culmination of this episode he is able to attain to a wholeness of self which we understand is only a starting point for an ongoing journey towards those Saintly ‘immortal figures who embody his artistic and moral ideals. In particular it is essential that Haller must let go of not just his fear, but of a multitude of deeply rooted regrets, regrets of which he was scarcely aware, before he is able to enter onto the next stage of his journey. The book reaches a very satisfying conclusion.
Just a note about the translation which was magnificient and alive. In fact it was so good it was hard to believe I was reading a translation and not an original work in English.