Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
This loosely structured, episodic novella relates the last passionate, troubled, exhilarating summer of the middle-age Klingsor, a leading European painter. It begins with a preface, in which the narrator reports that Klingsor died in the fall. No one knows the circumstances of his death; there are rumors that he went mad and that he committed suicide. He was always known for his heavy drinking. The narrative then moves on to vivid, impressionistic snapshots of Klingsor’s life during that last, wild summer.
He is first seen at night, on the balcony of his studio, situated in the lush Italian countryside. He is strained by overwork, lack of sleep, and intense, voluptuous living. Still, he is accustomed to extravagance. He thinks of his girlfriend Gina, a girl half his age, and he studies the work he has accomplished during the day.
In the next episode, Klingsor receives a visit from his old friend, a fellow painter whom he calls Louis the Cruel or Louis the Bird. Together, they argue good-naturedly about the respective callings of work, art, and sensual enjoyment. Louis is a bon viveur, and he and Klingsor spend the day together in a nearby town with Louis’ beautiful woman friend. After some days pass, Louis leaves suddenly, as is his custom. He was always happier when traveling.
With a group of artistic friends, including the writer Hermann, whom Klingsor calls Tu Fu, Klingsor visits the village of Kareno. He walks through mountain paths and lush vegetation, with a view of lakes and forests. There is a philosophical discussion about death and the passage of time, and Klingsor reflects passionately on the need to live in the present. The group reaches a tiny village at the summit of the mountain path, where Klingsor is captivated by the sight of one of the local women. He later meets another sensual young woman whom he calls the Queen of the Mountain; he sees her through his visionary, artistic eyes. Continuing the journey, Klingsor is in good spirits; at dinner in a grotto he drinks wine freely, fondles the women, sings, and tells tales. It is a picture of bacchanalian enjoyment and excess.
After an interlude which includes a letter written by Klingsor to his friend Edith, the narrative restarts in late July. From this point, Klingsor’s awareness of death is mixed more insistently with his sense of the ecstasy of life. Tu Fu visits him with an astrologer from Armenia. Over the ever-present wine, they discuss ways of overcoming melancholy. The astrologer believes that it can be conquered and banished forever through one intensive hour of concentration. They discuss freedom of the will, the transcendence of time, and the approach of death.
The narrative then moves to an evening in August. Klingsor reflects on the fullness of his life and his many experiences. Yet he now hears the “music of doom.” He meets a peasant woman from the valley who remembers him as the famous painter. They make love.
Before the final, climactic episode, there are two diversions from the narrative. First, Klingsor writes a letter to Louis. In it, Klingsor says that he still feels creativity exploding within him; he must go on working because the world is inexpressibly beautiful. Second, a poem by Klingsor which he sends to his friend Tu Fu is included. Klingsor is waiting for death, but he mocks death by singing drunken songs far into the night.
The final episode describes the painting of Klingsor’s self-portrait in the first days of September. It was the crowning glory of his tempestuous summer. The narrator briefly flashes forward and describes how the portrait, after Klingsor’s death, has been seen by others. Some perceived tranquillity and nobility, others saw madness, and still others saw a confession or a self-glorification. It was not a naturalistic portrait. Returning to the present, the narrator describes the intense and ecstatic few days of painting. Sleeping and eating little, but drinking as usual, Klingsor had seen many faces in himself, from the child to the libertine, and finally to the doomed man who accepted his fate. Somehow, he managed to compress his entire life’s experience, with all of its differing shades, into his portrait. It was a terrible struggle, but he had faith that what he was doing had some universal significance beyond his small individual life.
When the painting was finished, he locked it in the unused kitchen, showed it to no one, and resumed his normal life. The story ends with Klingsor making a visit to town, buying fruit and cigarettes to give to his girlfriend. The reader is left to puzzle over the reason for the death reported in the preface, since the narrator chooses to give no explanation, except to say that the rumors of suicide or madness had no foundation.