English-language scholars have contributed almost as much to an understanding of the life and work of Hermann Hesse as have German ones. Since the appearance in 1978 of major biographies by Ralph Freedman and Joseph Mileck, studies of individual aspects of Hesse’s career have added new material, which is reflected in two biographies that appeared in Germany in 2012, the 50th anniversary of the writer’s death. One, by Heimo Schwilk, the author of biographies of Luther, Rilke, and Ernst Jünger, is 432 pages. The other, by Gunnar Decker, who has written biographies of Georg Heym, Rilke, and Gottfried Benn, is 800 pages. The latter has now appeared in English.
There are two literary modes that permeate Western literature but for which German writers have manifested a remarkable fondness. Both concern the conflict of the individual with modern society. The first features the refusenik — alternately, the nonconformist or the outsider. The second is the so-called bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel in which a young male protagonist rebels against the standards of his elders but, in the course of age and the hard knocks of life, comes to terms with bourgeois standards. In the German tradition, Goethe is regarded as the originator of both, first with The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), then with Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1795–96). Hermann Hesse gave voice to the first mode in a series of novels that powerfully influenced America’s own refusenik generation, the Sixties: Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, Journey to the East, and The Glass Bead Game. As portrayed in this biography, Hesse was himself the ultimate refusenik, with his own life stages furnishing the background for his anti-bourgeois, civilization-rejecting portrayals.
A decade before the West gave signs of reaching an end stage with World War I, Hesse’s first novel, Peter Camenzind (1904), portrayed a young man turning his back on “the world” and its values. Hesse was not alone. The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), by Robert Musil, and Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger (1903) map out similar territory, but neither had such influence on youth. Hesse stayed with the theme in ever new variations, attacking with aversion and disgust (and in stock phrases) a variety of ills that included the growing uniformity of life, the banality of mass culture, the soullessness of the modern age, and sordid commercial interests. Short of suicide, what could one do? The path forward was personal discovery. It is all here, in 800 pages.
Hesse’s contempt for the world has its roots in his family background, although accounts of his temper tantrums while an infant suggest an innate predisposition against physical closeness. Born in 1877 in the Black Forest region of Germany, Hesse grew up in a highly educated, literary family of Pietists with missionary ties to India. They wrote religious tracts, biographies, poetry, and many, many letters, all indicative of the Pietist inclination for self-examination. Such introspection was of course not for worldly purposes but in preparation for the hereafter. The spiritual rigor of Hesse’s childhood, as portrayed in this biography, may remind readers of childrearing in High Victorian England. There was no hint of Rousseau’s educational philosophy in these formative years, and all attempts to bring a high-strung, verbally sophisticated child to heel were nothing short of disastrous. Hesse was expelled from schools, threatened suicide, ran away from home. He was, by his teens, a mess.
And yet, from his earliest years he wished nothing more than to be a writer, and he was never diverted from his goal, finding in the pursuit a way of coming to terms with his inner contradictions. As Hesse himself wrote in his diary in 1921: “If one construes writing as an act of confession — and that is the only way I can conceive of it at present — then art reveals itself to be a long, varied, and tortuous route, whose aim is to express the personality of the artist’s Self so comprehensively, and to explore all its diverse ramifications and divisions so thoroughly, that this Self is ultimately unwrapped and laid bare, ransacked and all spent, so to speak.”
Decker’s biography (like Schwilk’s and other earlier interpretations) follows this lead in portraying Hesse’s anti-bourgeois disgust not as Spenglerian analysis but as documentation of the novelist’s personal crises. Hesse’s self-diagnosis, however, pursued in a succession of novels, kept track with a train of 20th-century disasters that caused many people to feel a similar disgust with the world. The problem with portraying Hesse from the inside is that he emerges as a very unpleasant man. Among other things, one has the impression from this account that he drove his first wife (and the mother of his three sons) crazy, literally. Hesse’s personal crises are standard in all biographies of the author, excepting the earliest book (1927) on his life and work, by his friend, Hugo Ball. How many ways can one say “alienated male”?
There is much that’s of interest, and new, here — for instance, the account of Hesse’s relationship, beginning in 1916, with the psychoanalyst Josef Bernhard Lang (who advised Hesse to leave his wife). Hesse was by this time living in Switzerland (and would go on to become a Swiss citizen). While speaking out in opposition to World War I, he was active in Bern in efforts in behalf of German POWs in France. Hesse’s internationalist sentiments, in common with those of Romain Rolland, are well sketched, as is the opprobrium Hesse earned from Germans (as he would again during World War II) because of his condemnations of nationalism. We also learn of the career of one of Hesse’s oldest friends, from the late 1890s, the now-forgotten writer Ludwig Finckh, to whom Hesse’s first novel was dedicated. Finckh, however, became a committed Nazi from the get-go and, in 1947, turned to Hesse as a character witness in his denazification tribunal.
What is missing here is a sense of the historical milieu in which Hesse himself lived and came of age as a writer. The problem starts with the account of Hesse’s beginnings in life. Like earlier biographers, Decker relies, especially in the chapters concerning the years 1877 to 1900, on collections published decades ago (and compiled by Hesse’s third wife). These are for the most part “intimate” recollections: e.g., letters from family members and diary entries. They weigh heavily toward the “demonic” aspect of Hesse’s personality, even as a young child. The endnotes indicate that most of the sources on which Decker draws are from Hesse’s own autobiographical writings or his voluminous correspondence.
It strikes me that it is time to inaugurate a new Hesse template and to situate the writer in a larger historical and cultural context. The two volumes devoted to Hesse’s writings on other writers in Volker Michels’s edition of the collected works would be a place to start. While Hesse prefigures the contemporary tourist who complains how “spoiled” once “unspoiled” places have become, he was more than the irritable, crotchety, unstable, even hateful personality we see here. Decker pays scant attention to the literary quality of Hesse’s works, which are beautifully crafted, in a generally realistic style combined with content of striking intensity and unreality. They are richly associative, showing extensive reading, particularly in German literature.
Despite his “mystical” vision, and however weird or far-fetched or airy-fairy his ideas may appear to some readers, Hesse is an extremely lucid writer, a quality that does not characterize the writing of this biography. I have often criticized biographers who march readers through a week-by-week accounting of their subject’s life, but this book has led me to appreciate the merits of such an approach. There is nothing consecutive here; it is all back and forth, and one struggles to know where one is in the chronology of Hesse’s life or of his works. Decker continuously skips around in time, drawing a thread between works written, say, in 1916 and 1929.
There is also much here that an English or American reader would be unfamiliar with, e.g, the “Munich soviet republic” (!) of 1918–19. The translation, which is, frankly, workmanlike, replicates certain inadequacies of the original, including bibliographic infelicities. If you go to the endnotes to discover whom Decker is quoting, you generally find only “Collected Works” and the volume and page number. German editorial standards in this respect are not strong, but it is surprising that Harvard University Press did not correct the deficiency. The chronology at the end of the volume lists Hesse’s works with their date of publication, but only the major ones, not all of those discussed by Decker. The German edition is even less user-friendly, with only an index of persons, yet I doubt that even German readers are familiar with most of Hesse’s works.
In this respect, The Wanderer and His Shadow (the title of the second part of Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human) exemplifies strikingly the complexities and contradictions that Hermann Hesse represented.