Because 9 August 2022 will be the 60th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of my second-favourite writer, Hermann Hesse, I’ll be spending the month blogging and vlogging about this extraordinary person—his books, his personal life, and what he means to me. Let’s get started with his biography!
Hermann Karl Hesse was born in Calw, Germany, in the Black Forest, on 2 July 1877. His parents were Marie Gundert (1842–1902) and Johannes Hesse (1847–1916). Because his father was a Baltic German from Estonia (then part of the Russian Empire), Hermann was thus born with both German and Russian citizenship. (And as someone who loves younger men, I love that his mother was older than his father!)
He had eight siblings, three of whom died in infancy. His halfbrothers were Theodore (1866–1941) and Karl Isenberg (1869–1937), from their mother’s first marriage, and his full siblings were Adele (1875–1949), Marie (1880–1953), and Johannes (Hans) (1882–1935).
From an early age, young Hermann exhibited precocious talents and great creativity. By the time he was four years old, he was already writing poetry and drawing thoughtful pictures, and demonstrated a very passionate, headstrong spirit. In addition to having intellectual, unconventional parents who nurtured his talents, he also was allowed full access to the library of his scholarly grandfather, Hermann Gundert, and drew great creative inspiration from his beautiful hometown.
In 1881, the Hesses moved to Basel, Switzerland, and received Swiss citizenship the next year. Hermann began attending his missionary parents’ boarding school, Knabenhaus, in 1885. Then, in 1886, the family returned to Calw, where Hermann continued his education.
In 1890, Hermann transferred to a Latin school in Göppingen so he could prep for Württemberg’s State Examination. Students who passed this exam were entitled to a full or partial scholarship. Hermann’s father acquired Württemberg citizenship on his behalf, which meant he lost his Swiss citizenship.
After Hermann passed the exam in 1891, he enrolled at Maulbronn Monastery’s Protestant theological seminary. However, his interest in a religious career quickly faded, and he fled in March 1892. He wanted to be a poet or nothing else. A day after his escape, he was caught.
Hermann fell into a depression and began having violent fights with his parents. Two months after his escape from Maulbronn, he attempted suicide. He then was sent to a mental hospital near Stuttgart, where he worked in the garden and taught mentally disabled kids. Hermann wrote an angry letter to his father in September 1892.
At the end of 1892, he left the institute and enrolled in a gymnasium in Cannstatt. He passed the one-year exam in 1893, but soon dropped out of school and started an apprenticeship with a bookseller in Esslingen am Necklar. This apprenticeship lasted all of three days.
In summer 1894, Hermann began a mechanic apprenticeship in the tower clock factory Perrot in Calw, which lasted 14 months. This work didn’t speak to his soul, heart, and mind either, and he began a new bookseller apprenticeship in October 1895 in Tübingen.
At the antiquarian bookstore Heckenhauer, Hermann thrived. Not only did he enjoy working with these precious old books, he also had the chance to further his education privately at the end of each workday. On Sundays, his day off, he filled his time with reading.
When he finished his apprenticeship in October 1898, Hermann continued working at Heckenhauer as a sales assistant. During this time, he began publishing poems and stories, some in collections, some independently. Sadly, he didn’t achieve commercial success from these early first forays into literature.
In autumn 1899, Hermann moved back to Basel and began work at another antiquarian bookstore, Reich’sche Buchhandlung. In Basel, his intellectual, artistic, and spiritual life began reawakening.
In 1900, he was released from military service on account of poor eyesight. He suffered from amblyopia (lazy eye) the rest of his life, along with headaches and nerve pain.
Hermann travelled to Italy in March 1901, and stayed until May. He visited Milan, Genoa, Florence, Bologna, Ravenna, Padua, and Venice. After his return to Basel, he started working at the antiquarian bookstore Wattenwyl.
In 1904, he published his first novel, Peter Camenzind. From this point on, he was a full-time writer. Also in 1904, he married his first wife, photographer Maria Bernoulli (1868–1963). (I love that she was nine years older!) They had three sons, Bruno (1905–1999), Hans Heinrich (Heiner) (1909–2003), and Martin (1911–1968).
The marriage wasn’t a success, and Hermann’s creative life also suffered. To try to recover, he travelled to the Far East in 1911 (India, Ceylon, Indonesia, Sumatra, Borneo, Burma). Though he got his writing mojo back, his couldn’t save his marriage. He and Maria divorced in 1923.
In 1924, Hermann regained his Swiss citizenship and lost his German citizenship. That same year, he married Ruth Wenger (1897–1994), though they mostly lived in different houses and never slept together. They divorced in 1927.
Hermann began cohabiting with art historian Ninon Dolbin (née Ausländer) (1895–1966) in 1927, and married her in 1931. They settled in Montagnola, which overlooks Lake Lugano.
Though he never openly expressed anti-Nazi views, he did strongly speak out in support of Jewish writers and other writers being persecuted. German newspapers stopped publishing his articles in the mid-Thirties, and his work was classified as undesirable in 1936. None of his books were ever banned or burnt, however.
His final novel, The Glass Bead Game, was published in 1943, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. He continued writing short stories and poems, but didn’t begin any new novels. During the last two decades of his life, his major literary focus became letter-writing.
Hermann Hesse’s typewriter
Hermann received about 35,000 letters over his professional lifetime, and, just like dear Stan Laurel, answered the bulk of these letters personally. He felt it was a moral obligation to write to anyone who’d taken the time to write to him.
In December 1961, he caught flu, and had trouble recovering. Unbeknownst to him, he’d had leukemia for a long time. He received several blood transfusions, but they weren’t enough. Hermann died of a stroke in his sleep on 9 August 1962, aged 85, and was buried in the Sant’Abbondio cemetery in Gentilino.
Copyright Hannes Röst