Posted in Books, Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse Month, Part IV (Ranking Hermann Hesse’s novels)

Because 9 August 2022 is the 60th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of my next-fave writer, Hermann Hesse, I’m showcasing his life and works this month. Let’s continue with my personal ranking of his novels. If you feel differently about some of them, leave a comment explaining why you love a book I disliked or found unmemorable, or why you hate or don’t care for a book I adore.

Hesse’s 1919 breakthrough Demian will always be my #1. I first read it from the summer of 1994 to February 1995, and it had such a huge impact on my life. Demian was also the first adult novel I read independently of school assignments. Everything about this book is absolutely perfect, and it speaks so deeply to the human condition. Particularly meaningful to me are Hesse’s Midrash about the Mark of Cain being something positive, the mark of a nonconformist unafraid to go against the crowd, and the concept of Abraxas, a half-good, half-evil deity.

Narcissus and Goldmund, published in 1930, is another book that’s had a huge impact on my life. I’m not alone in considering it Hesse’s very finest. Many times through life, I’ve thought about Goldmund’s discovery of the close linking of agony and ecstasy. I also love that it’s set during the Middle Ages and includes the Black Plague. It also features the conflict between religious and secular life, without judging or heavily favoring either.

Steppenwolf, published in 1927, is the third of Hesse’s books which most changed my life. I connected so much with Harry, who has such a one-tracked intellectual life of the mind he doesn’t even know how to laugh or dance, and looks poorly on people who aren’t as serious and intellectual as he is. The Magic Theatre which appears in the famous finale also inspired the name of my old Angelfire site and current main blog, only I use the spelling Magick as a nod to ritual, supernatural, esoteric magic. I also love the concept of an inner wolf in all of us, analogous to the id, ego, and superego, and the reptilian brain. My only complaint is that the treatise on the Steppenwolf feels a bit boring at times.

Rosshalde, published in 1914, is my favorite of Hesse’s early novels, and one of his books I read in a single day. It’s a beautiful, emotional, touching, gripping story about a marriage falling apart (similar to Hesse’s own first marriage), a visit from an old friend, a father’s difficult relationship with his older son and his clear strong preference for his younger son, said younger son’s serious illness over the summer, and the life of a painter. Rosshalde (Roßhalde in German) is the name of the family’s mansion.

Beneath the Wheel, published in 1906, was Hesse’s second novel. Like so many of his other books, it’s heavily autobiographical, this time drawing from his difficulties at school. The protagonist, Hans, is an academic prodigy, but his education focused solely upon the acquisition of knowledge and an interior life of the mind. Thus, he has a hard time making friends in the real world and forming personal connections to other people when he returns to his village after being expelled from school for bad grades and a mental crackup. Though he likes his work as a mechanic’s apprentice well enough, he never fully adjusts to this life outside of the ivory tower.

Peter Camenzind, published in 1904, was Hesse’s début novel. I love this sweet, simple story of a young man leaving his home to find his own path in life and discover who he is. One of the most touching aspects of the novel is Peter’s friendship with the old cripple Boppi, whom he was initially physically repelled by but later became best friends with. During a visit to the zoo, they realize in delight that they switched from Sie to Du without being aware of it.

Siddhartha, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022, remains Hesse’s best-known novel, sometimes the only one non-fans have read or know about.  Though it was published in 1922, it only came to the U.S. in translation in 1951. It’s the story of a young man in Ancient Nepal who leaves his home in the hopes of finding spiritual fulfillment and happiness (a common theme among Hesse’s novels!). His best friend Govinda joins him, though they later part ways when Govinda joins Buddha’s religious order and Siddhartha chooses to find his own unique path. If you love Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Gertrude, published in 1910, was the second Hesse novel I read, back in the spring of 1995. It’s the story of a musician who suffers a paralyzing injury from a tobogganing accident and rises to become a successful composer. He also passionately loves Gertrud, whom he believes could never desire him in return on account of his crippledness. A lovely, moving story about unrequited love and the power of music.

Journey to the East, published in 1932, is one of Hesse’s most forgettable novels for me. It’s about a pilgrimage to the East by some members of a group called The League (which includes some of Hesse’s own characters, like Goldmund, Klingsor, and Vasudeva, as well as real people like Picasso, Paul Klee, Don Quixote, and Mozart). During their journey, a servant named Leo disappears, and the group dissolves into bickering and anxiety. Years later, the narrator tries to write about this journey, but fails at this endeavor. Then Leo reappears and tells him he has to appear before the High Throne to be judged by The League.

Knulp, published in 1915, consists of three stories written between 1907–14. It follows a vagrant, Knulp, who merrily flits all over the towns he passes through on his happy-go-lucky travels. The only thing I remember about this book is how it ends! However, at least I enjoyed reading it.

Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943, was the only book of his I found a boring chore and slog instead of a page-turning joy. At least he redeemed himself at the end with the Three Lives stories and the poems, and I loved Joseph Knecht’s friendships with the old Music Master and Plinio Designori. I’m far from the only reader who still had no idea by the end how this Glass Bead Game is actually played, and feel like Hesse chose the ending he did because he was out of his league with a book of this length and decided to just pull the plug in media res before it ballooned even more. Hesse was far more effective with short novels.

Author:

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

One thought on “Hermann Hesse Month, Part IV (Ranking Hermann Hesse’s novels)

  1. Thinking again about the difference between playing A Fool and GOD’S fool.

    Or being played AS a fool BY God.

    I wonder if you would have been more engaged in Knulp if you had had that thought/background?

    Ah – writing about disastrous journeys like the ones in JOURNEY TO THE EAST.

    You do need some distance and some reflection.

    When you talked about BENEATH THE WHEEL in the video I was not overly clear about what you were saying in it [even the parts that came from the blog].

    Like

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