Hermann Hesse

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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.)

Christopher Middleton

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[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...

(This entire section contains 935 words.)

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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 his own, and, rather mysteriously, thousands of readers could find their own troubles reflected in those of his protagonists. (p. 31)

Although he was basically a confessional writer, his self-revelations are (to us now, it must be said) mostly moderated by a discretion which used to be the mark of civilized persons. Hesse never was the sort of untamed self-eviscerator whom Henry Miller and Timothy Leary thought they were shepherding into the scene when they praised him….

Hesse's sentimentality and solipsism often tiresomely over-shadow the more incandescent aspects of his personality and work, manifesting themselves in limp stereotypes, clichés, and other forms of low-energy escapism….

[Non-German] readers could not see how Hesse's sentimental and solipsistic aspects connect the writer Hesse with all kinds of German psychosocial malaise—with morose philistine paltriness, self-pity, and self-aggrandizement. His other-worldly utopianism, whether or not accompanied by deep Indian equations between the self and the world, was eccentrically part of a broader tendency to wishful thinking that inched the German middle class via hero-worship and "inwardness" into hideous self-deception and eventually Nazism. The "floating irrationality" which American fans adored in Hesse was, as a matter of historical fact, a major impulse in German middle-class psychology….

I am not saying that Hesse was a deliberate irrationalist like D. H. Lawrence or Knut Hamsun…. In fact, for all his quasi-mystical proclivity, Hesse never did espouse irrationalism, least of all its terrorist fringe. Quite the reverse: he thought his task in the 1930s was to wrest the utopian impulse from its manipulators, and to enshrine it in an unassailable imaginative form (The Glass Bead Game). (p. 32)

For me … there is a durable but abstruse Hesse to be disengaged from the defenses he built into his writings and around them. All the seraphic talk of his being a pilgrim, wayfarer, a magician, a sage, and so forth tends to reflect only the sedentary and cerebral habits of readers who fancy Hesse so.

Yet he certainly was what Germans call a "seeker." In his thirties he used to advertise himself as a "quiet" or "secret" lyricist. If only his poems were not so insipid, this might offer a clue to his abstruse side…. His naïveté is perhaps what deserves to be noticed now, and understood. (p. 34)

There was, in and under everything, something wild about Hesse, something of the ungovernable child of Pietist missionaries. He kept it alive, sometimes in grotesque forms, sometimes in luminous ones. And there was in him, too, something of his Swabian intellectual ancestors, whom he came upon quite late in life: great God-hounded deviants, dreamers, and delinquents, from Albertus Magnus to Hölderlin and Mörike, each peculiarly rapt in his vision of the One in the Many, the Many in the One, and some of them coming apart in pursuit of that vision. What is it, after all, that Hesse's protagonists seek, if not naïveté reborn as illumination through grace? And something more: not the subjugation of reason to any system, but a just peace between the naïf and intellectual claims of consciousness. Just you listen, he says, listen actively, there it is, "the wooden horse is neighing in the wind." (p. 35)

Christopher Middleton, "Neighing in the Wind," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, March 8, 1979, pp. 31-5.

Publishers Weekly

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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.

Thomas A. Kamla

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[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.

Theodore Ziolkowski

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[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 Hood takes it for granted that the wolf can talk; the wicked stepmother in "Snow White" consults her magic mirror just as routinely as a modern woman might switch on her television set; and the tailor's son is not astonished at a table that sets itself with a feast when the proper formula is uttered. Hesse's Märchen share this quality of self-evident magic. Pictor [in the title story] does not question the powers of the magic stone; the aspiring young artist [in "Tale of the Wicker Chair"] is not astonished when the wicker chair talks back to him.

However, a world in which magic is taken for granted does not in itself suffice to make a fairy tale: it must also be a world with an explicit ethical dimension…. As Bruno Bettelheim points out in The Uses of Enchantment, "the child can find meaning through fairy tales," which offer an experience in moral education through which he brings order into the turmoil of his feelings. This is precisely the message of Hesse's Märchen: the characters are brought to an awareness of some principle of meaning that they had previously misunderstood. (pp. xiv-xv)

The impulse toward fantasy remained powerful in Hesse's temperament throughout his life. (p. xvi)

[As an outlet for his fantasy], Hesse chose a form consistent with his current realism—the legend, a genre in which the supernatural was not entirely implausible because it could be attributed to the mythic consciousness that existed in remote times and places…. As we noted, however, the supernatural occurrences in the legends are regarded as an interruption of normal "reality" and not, as in the fairy tales, as self-evident. But Hesse soon found other ways of dealing with fantasy.

Dreams always played a lively role in Hesse's psychic life, as he tells us in the late essay "Nocturnal Games." The ominous precognitive dream of war related in "The Dream of the Gods" … is significant because it signaled the unleashing of the powers of fantasy that Hesse had sought for more than a decade to suppress. During World War I, a variety of pressures … produced in Hesse an emotional crisis so severe that, in 1916 and 1917, he sought help in psychoanalysis. It was Jungian analysis, with its emphasis on dreams and their interpretation, that enabled Hesse to recover the childlike contact with the world of fantasy that he had attempted so long to repress…. [Several] of the fairy tales that he wrote during the war are barely disguised metaphors for the recovery of the past through psychoanalysis…. (pp. xvii-xviii)

Hesse was fully aware of the significance of the wartime Märchen and dreams in his personal development. In August of 1919 he wrote his publisher that Demian along with the Märchen that he composed from 1913 to 1918 were "tentative efforts toward a liberation, which I now regard as virtually complete." By means of the fairy tale, he had succeeded in reestablishing the link with the unconscious that had been ruptured…. However, the tone begins to change from the high seriousness of the wartime fables to the irony of "The Painter" and "Tale of the Wicker Chair," which anticipate Hesse's movement toward social satire in the twenties. (p. xix)

Hesse's late stories, while they bring no new variations in form, nevertheless display his continuing experimentation with the forms of fantasy. Indeed, the narrative is often encapsulated within a speculative framework in which the writer reflects on the nature of fantasy. "Nocturnal Games" embeds the account of several dreams in a rumination on the meaning of dreams in Hesse's life. "Report from Normalia," the fragment of an unfinished novel that might well have grown into a satirical counterpart to the utopian vision of The Glass Bead Game, depicts a Central European country "in the north of Aquitaine." "Normalia," we are told, emerged by expansion from the parklike grounds of a onetime insane asylum to become the most rational nation in Europe. But Hesse, making use of a fictional device that has recently appealed to writers of the absurd, casts doubt on all our assumptions concerning "normality." The narrator, it turns out, is ultimately unsure whether the former madhouse he inhabits has indeed become the seat of sanity in a mad world or whether it is not in fact still a madhouse. In "Christmas with Two Children's Stories" the two fairy tales—Hesse's own and the tale written by his grandson—generate a theoretical digression on the function and nature of fantasy. And in "The Jackdaw" … Hesse shares with us the manner in which his imagination plays with reality to generate stories about an unusually tame bird that he encounters at the spa in Baden. (pp. xxii-xxiii)

While fantasy in the unadulterated form that it displays in "Pictor's Metamorphoses" (where we are dealing literally with an "other-world" in Tolkien's sense) occurs infrequently in Hesse's mature works, it is fair to say that the tendency toward fantasy is evident in his writing from childhood to old age. Indeed, fantasy can be called the hallmark of Hesse's major novels of the twenties and thirties, the surreal quality that disturbs critics of a more realistic persuasion: for instance, the Magic Theater in Steppenwolf or the fanciful scenes in The Journey to the East, where reality blends into myth and fantasy. Indeed, fantasy is a state of mind into which Hesse and his literary surrogates enter with remarkable ease. (p. xxiii)

It would be a mistake to regard the tendency toward fantasy, in Hesse or other writers, as mere escapism…. [Fantasy], with its explicitly didactic tendency, represents not so much a flight from confrontation as, rather, a mode in which the confrontation can be enacted in a realm of esthetic detachment, where clear ethical judgments are possible. Indeed, fantasy often reveals the values of a given epoch more vividly than the so-called realisms it may bring forth. In any case, a generation that decorates its walls with the calendars of the Brothers Hildebrandt while perusing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, that hastens from meetings of the C. S. Lewis Society to performances of space fantasies like Star Wars, has mastered the semiotics necessary to decode the hidden signs of "Pictor's Metamorphoses" and Hesse's other fantasies. (pp. xxiv-xxv)

Theodore Ziolkowski, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1981, 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.), in Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies by Hermann Hesse, edited by Theodore Ziolkowski, translated by Rika Lesser, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982, pp. vii-xxv.

Sally Emerson

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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 or creation….

In these fairy tales full of stock characters—the merman, the simple wise boy, the virgin, the three brothers—Hesse limbers up for his major work, establishing links between his conscious and the deeper, unconscious world of myth and legend. Hesse was a connoisseur of fairy tales and anyone who is a fan of his would do well to read this varied collection of the master storyteller, who was on talking terms with the moon and the devil.

Sally Emerson, "Recent Fiction: 'Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies'," in The Illustrated London News (© 1982 The Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd.), Vol. 270, No. 7010, September, 1982, p. 59.

Idris Parry

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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 ten. It is his first known piece of prose composition, and it sets the tone for the "soul biographies" (his term) which are his collected works. In every case the illogical starts from known life…. Incidents from the remote past surface in the present, myth takes its place as a familiar component of life. This author wants to tell us that there is always a bridge between the visible and invisible. The admirable thing about Hesse is that he elaborates the obvious with such affecting sincerity. For him originality means simply going back to the origins. He does not suprirse, but he satisfies.

When he describes dreams in one of these stories as "nocturnal games" he connects with a constant theme of his work, the dream or fantasy as a gambit, a new throw which shakes up and rearranges what is already there. Every Märchen owes its existence to the belief that at each moment there is a fresh arrangement of pieces, always in the process of transformation, and that each moment and each piece contains the possibility of every other. The many transformations of this book's title story (bird becomes flower becomes butterfly becomes gemstone) signify the effortless intimacy with all life, embracing all connections, which the author hopes for himself. As his first metamorphosis Pictor becomes a tree, which must be the most common poetic symbol for receptivity.

The outsider is a persistent figure in these tales. The hero of the story "Hannes" is reputedly stupid because he will take no part in the activities of his fellows. Eventually they come to regard him, because of his deep familiarity with nature, as an intermediary between men and the gods, another divine fool with insight into the other world….

"The Jackdaw" is a perfect example of how the writer can transform fact into legend. The tale starts normally enough. Hesse walks in the everyday world of his favourite resort, Baden. He observes a tame jackdaw hopping on a bridge. This bird, familiar with humanity, exhibits an abnormal degree of individuality and so becomes an outsider. Hesse speculates that the jackdaw may have been separated from his fellows because he was a mischief-maker, "which in no way rules out his being a genius." Perhaps he was such a nuisance to his family and society that he was "solemnly excommunicated and, like the scapegoat, driven out into the wilderness". From the familiar bridge at Baden Hesse projects his story into the mystery of the sacrificed king, connects with magic and religion, and links with the first fantasy in this book, written fifty years earlier, where he says he wants "to go back to where all things begin". He does all this by means of the less plausible explanation.

Idris Parry, "A New Throw at the Old Game," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4145, September 10, 1982, p. 965.


Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 2)


Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 3)