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...
(The entire section is 4,349 words.)