Hermann Hesse 1877–1962
German-born Swiss novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, and critic.
All of Hesse's major novels are autobiographical in some way. Demian reflects Hesse's experience with psychoanalysis and his abhorrence of war. Siddhartha is the result of an extended visit to India where Hesse sought the peace of mind that he believed could be found in oriental religions. His school novel Unterm Rad (The Prodigy) depicts the educational institution as being fatal to the human spirit that does not conform. Within many of Hesse's works there is a theme of the conflict of spirit and flesh. Der Steppenwolf is perhaps the best example of this struggle, in which the animalistic urges of the intellectual Harry Haller strive for release. In Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi) Hesse treats nearly all of the themes present in his previous works. He contrasts the active world with the contemplative world and this time finds the world of the spirit lacking. There are critics who feel, however, that Das Glasperlenspiel is Hesse's slightest work, for here he deviates from his earlier effective portrayals of passionate youth.
Hesse's continued popularity among the youth of several countries has prompted posthumous publications of his poems, letters, and short stories. Although he wrote poetry throughout his life, only Hesse's earliest poems have been published. The confessional mode of his best-known fiction, however, can be seen in them. The letters offer revealing insights into the man and the motivations behind the writer. Perhaps the most interesting of these works is the collection of short stories, Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies. As the title indicates, the stories are written in the genre of fantasy, which many critics consider the logical product of a mind which persisted in rejecting reality. Consequently, critics find in the stories a definite link to Hesse's other fiction. Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 17; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 16-20, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[In] spite of his 1946 Nobel Prize [Hesse's] work is somehow not admitted into the canon of "great" twentieth-century German authors. Germans, at least, would be amused nowadays, or mildly astonished, if a foreigner were to mention him along with Thomas Mann, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Kafka, or Brecht….
It is partly because the canon has no place for a writer whose work, though a coherent whole, is so curiously mixed. It is sometimes cloying, sometimes profound, then quixotically un-ironic, then at once brisk, mysterious, and topical, and at other times, if not in his last two fictions, what Germans patronizingly call pubertär—and most of this in a prose that has a mercurial texture all its own….[The years Hesse spent with his first wife at Gaienfofen, on Lake Constance, shaped him] as a mildly disturbed but polite author of Swabian small-town tales and of two novels about desperate but rather dreary artists. He was successful, second-rate, and trapped. The change came in the middle of the First World War….
Yet Hesse does not quite belong among those writers who extracted from the war, besides horror, disgust, and irony, a distinctly altered outlook, a vocabulary purged of cant, and a new approach to poetry. Doubt toward any pretension to dignity and nobility—that is one attitude Hesse confessed he drew from the war. Also a heightening of the color, tempo, urgency of his prose could be taken for a sign that he too now believed all the idylls were over. But this is not quite the case. Hesse's utopian fantastic impulse was not subdued but quickened, and its shattering against the historical world was recorded now with just that much more intensity. What did change Hesse, or what he came to create, was a new narrative form, in which his polymorphous interior life could be reflected. This was the fictionalized monologue, with a figured bass of images (later he called this his "private mythology") that recur in modulations and, from book to book, explicitly or tacitly organize the events….
Hesse was one of the first European writers to be psychoanalyzed, but his analysis was never purely clinical and always broken off. He duly became … a self-analytical novelist whose fictions orchestrated psychic crises of...
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The theme of fantasy runs strong in all Hesse's work; in this selection of 19 stories [Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies], which span his entire writing career and embody many literary forms, he gives it its head. The title story, an allegorical account of a love affair of his own, is a charming but watercolory fable about the search for true happiness. "Lulu," the longest story and also the first written (1900), is a lushly romantic fairy tale, mingling fantasy and realism…. "Among the Massagetae" and "King Yu," written much later, skillfully turn fable to the uses of social satire. "The Jackdaw" (1951), one of the simplest but most effective pieces, is a rumination on an eccentric jackdaw, a solitary like Hesse himself (whose third wife nicknamed him "Bird"). For all their limpidity of style, ingenuity of fancy and attempts to portray the eternal verities of the human soul in the guise of magic, these stories do not have the power of a tale by the Brothers Grimm (who influenced Hesse greatly). Nor are they likely to disarm those critics who, not in the way of flattery, regard Hesse as the writer par excellence of adolescence.
"Fiction: 'Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the November 20, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 220, No. 21, November 20, 1981, p. 44.
[The stories in Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies are] generically linked to a specific narrative medium, namely the fantastic. This rubric ought not disarm the reader; for Hesse, the fantastic is not an escapist mode for solipsistic flights of the imagination. Rather, many of the themes that problematize his other works surface here just as compellingly. The conflict between life and mind in modern man's soul, the situation of the intellectual and artist in a highly restrictive and hostile environment, man's union with nature, rebellion against bourgeois philistinism—these are characteristic themes in Hesse's writings that also impact on the fantastic mode. The form he adopts in Pictor's Metamorphoses, the fairy tale and the legend, simply constitutes an extended metaphor of the way he envisions and confronts these themes.
The nineteen stories presented in this volume vary vastly in their individual plots, e.g., the artist and the objective world, religious hypocrisy, nature contra technology, the individual and the political state, psychology and dream; still, they are held together by a recurrent leitmotif, the alienation of man from his true self, a theme typical of Hesse depicting man's loss of an original state of primitive innocence through the process of civilization. By turning to the idealized realm of fairy tale and legend, Hesse is able to exercise greater aesthetic freedom in creating an ethical and spiritual goal to which man, denatured by the ravages that a disjointed reality has made on his soul, may aspire.
The selections span most of Hesse's writing career … and extend from the simple message of parable ("Three Lindens") to the more abstract level of allegory ("Bird"); thus they should appeal to a wide readership. (pp. 325-26)
Thomas A. Kamla, "Fiction: 'Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1981 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 41. No. 9, December, 1981, pp. 325-26.
[The] distrust of everyday "reality"—it is characteristic that [Hesse] customarily bracketed the term with quotation marks to indicate what he regarded as its tentative, problematic nature—remained a conspicuous theme in Hesse's thought throughout his life. (p. vii)
At the same time, Hesse inevitably coupled his rejection of present "reality" with an assertion of his faith in a higher truth…. In 1940 his denial of "so-called reality" concluded with the claim that "all spiritual reality, all truth, all beauty, all longing for these things, appears today to be more essential than ever."
This perceived dichotomy between contemporary "reality" and eternal values produces the tension that is characteristic of Hesse's entire literary oeuvre. The heroes of his best-known novels … are men driven by their longing for a higher reality that they have glimpsed in their dreams, their visions, their epiphanies, but tied by history and destiny to a "reality" that they cannot escape. At times, however, Hesse sought to depict that other world outright, and not simply as the vision of a figure otherwise rooted in this world.
Northrop Frye has observed that "fantasy is the normal technique for fiction writers who do not believe in the permanence or continuity of the society they belong to." Accordingly, fantasy is the appropriate generic term for Hesse's attempts—both in his fiction and … in his painting—to render the world of which his fictional surrogates can only dream. In his classic essay "On Fairy-Stories" …, Tolkien defined fantasy as "the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds," and many of Hesse's works display precisely the "arresting strangeness," the "freedom from the domination of observed fact," that Tolkien has elsewhere called the essential qualities of fantasy. But fantasy, as the tension between an unsatisfactory "reality" and an ideal reality suggests, is more than the creation of other-worlds per se. A more precise definition might specify that fantasy is a literary genre whose effect is an ethical insight stemming from the contemplation of an other-world governed by supernatural laws.
By far the most common form of fantasy practiced by Hesse was the fairy tale or, to use the somewhat broader German term, the Märchen. Symptomatically, his earliest extant prose composition was a fairy tale entitled "The Two Brothers" (included [in Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies] in the piece called "Christmas with Two Children's Stories" [one tale written by the ten-year-old Hesse and one tale written by his grandson]). (pp. viii-ix)
When he compared his early story "The Two Brothers" with a similar tale written some sixty years later by his grandson, Hesse observed that in both cases a wish is magically fulfilled, and in both cases the narrator has constructed for his hero a role of moral glory, a "crown of virtue." In short, both tales are characterized by elements of the supernatural (magical wish fulfillment) and by an explicit ethical dimension. (p. xii)
In every case,… from the fairy tale of the ten-year-old Hesse to the ironic fable of the sixty-year-old, the narratives that Hesse specifically labeled as Märchen display two characteristics that distinguish them from his other prose narratives. There is an element of magic that is taken for granted: wish fulfillment, metamorphosis, animation of natural objects, and the like. And this magic incident produces in the hero a new dimension of ethical awareness: the necessity of love in life, the inappropriateness of ambition, and so forth. To be sure, wonders and miracles occur in other forms of fantasy employed by Hesse: but elsewhere the miracle is regarded as an interruption or suspension of normal laws. In the legends, for instance, the miracle represents an intervention by some higher power (e.g., "The Merman" or "Three Lindens") that underscores the special nature of the occurrence. The figures in the fairy tales, in contrast, accept the wonders as self-evident: they do not represent any intrusion of the supernatural into the rational world, because the entire world of the Märchen operates according to supernatural laws. Little Red Riding...
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Hermann Hesse's fairy tales in Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies are nowhere near the standard of his great work. Hesse thrives on the shifting, blurring, dangerous balance between fantasy and what we call reality: it is this balance between real and imagined worlds which characterizes his masterpieces Steppenwolf or the magnificent and sustained The Glass Bead Game. Only one story stands out from this collection, published in an authorized translation in Britain for the first time, Pictor's Metamorphoses itself, which tells in allegorical form his love for his second wife, the singer Ruth Winger whom he married briefly after living in an isolation he found unconducive to happiness...
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All nineteen pieces in [Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies] are fantasies, chosen by Theodore Ziolkowski from a half century of Hesse's writings. Some are tales of magic in the style of the Brothers Grimm or The Arabian Nights; at the other extreme we find social satires in which prevalent and objectionable trends are exaggerated to appear fantastical. All are perfectly representative of an author whose fictional heroes, from Demian to Harry Haller in Steppenwolf and Josef Knecht in The Glass Bead Game, are aware of the plausible explanation and reject it in favour of dream.
Hesse includes in one of his later stories published here a fairytale written when he was...
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