Because 9 August 2022 will be the 60th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of my next-fave writer, Hermann Hesse, I’m devoting this month to a celebration of his life and works. Let’s continue with a discussion about his influence on my own writing.
The main example which immediately springs to mind is Little Ragdoll. As I’ve mentioned many times, middle Troy sister Emeline is my Doppelgänger (albeit with some differences, like where we went to school and the fact that I’ve never smoked pot). One of those keen similarities between us is our love of Hermann Hesse.
Our first Hesse novel was Demian, though Emeline first read it in sixth grade instead of starting it the summer before ninth grade. It’s recommended to her by her German-Jewish surrogate mother Sarah, who later suggests several other Hesse novels she thinks Emeline will love.
When the mean girls at school are taunting Emeline and her sisters in the schoolyard on Halloween 1959, Emeline responds:
“Why are any of yous so mean to us? Are yous just offended we’re different from you, and that difference makes yous uncomfortable? I was reading a book our nanny recommended, and it says when you hate someone, you hate something in that person that’s part of yourself, since what isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”
Ernestine, the next sister after Emeline, soon asks if she can read that book after Emeline finishes, and Emeline says it’s an adult book, probably not at Ernestine’s reading level. Sarah told her the author won the Nobel Prize in 1946.
After Demian, Emeline reads Gertrude, Beneath the Wheel, and Peter Camenzind. In June 1962, at age fourteen, she rereads Demian and checks out several of his other books (not named). When her black-hearted mother sees the books and begins ranting about them because of the “Kraut” name, Emeline says Hermann Hesse is Swiss, not German, and that one of the books Sarah recommended (Narcissus and Goldmund) hasn’t been properly translated into English yet, so she had to settle for different titles. Presumably they include Siddhartha, which Sarah also recommended.
Throughout the book, Demian and its themes are referred to several times, like Hesse’s marvellous Midrash about how the Mark of Cain is really the mark of a nonconformist, someone special, someone unafraid to go against the crowd, and the concept of a half-good, half-evil deity like Abraxas.
Emeline finally gets to read Narcissus and Goldmund in 1968. Though one of her majors at Vassar is German Studies (a love largely inspired by Hesse), she explains that knowing a language fluently doesn’t automatically mean one can easily read an entire book without stumbling. Emeline is also very annoyed that many of her hippie friends are into Hesse because he’s trendy, while she loved him long before his books were embraced by the counterculture.
Part III, “The Conjoined Twins of Agony and Ecstasy,” takes its title from an important moment in Narcissus and Goldmund, when Goldmund sees a woman in childbirth. Her face strikingly reminds him of an orgasmic woman. Never before has he realized how closely linked agony and ecstasy are, and that becomes one of the things he’s most keen to translate into the dream Madonna he longs to create. (Goldmund is an artist.)
One of the two quotes on the title page of Part II, “Dramatic Developments,” is from Siddhartha, “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” Emeline also includes some Hesse quotes among the things taped up on her apartment wall when she moves to Hudson Falls.
That same pivotal realization in Narcissus and Goldmund inspired the title of Chapter 27, “The Close Entwining of Despair and Joy,” in The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks.
The last line of Vol. II of Journey Through a Dark Forest, “To be born or create something new, one must first destroy the pre-existing world, for better or worse,” comes straight from a line in Demian, a cryptic note accompanying a drawing Max Demian sends to narrator Emil Sinclair, “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”
This also inspired the final line of Vol. I of A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, “A new world can never be wrought without the old world being destroyed first.” Like the other line, it’s in Katrin’s POV, and in the preceding lines, she thinks back to those closing lines of her World of Tomorrow essay from 1939.
Elsewhere in Dream Deferred, Demian and Steppenwolf are referred to, with the lines about hating something in people that’s part of yourself and how Steppenwolf delves into a concept like the ego, superego, and id, with contradictory desires, impulses, and beliefs.
In my Atlantic City books, Cinnimin’s father recommends Hesse to her in the spring of 1940, and suggests she might formally take German at school so she can read his books untranslated. Cinni’s German skills have gotten very rusty, and most of Hesse’s books weren’t available in English in that era.
When Cinni gives birth to her first child in August 1951, she names him Demian in honour of this special character and book.