Klingsor's Last Summer

by Hermann Hesse

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Critical Context

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Klingsor’s Last Summer was the collective title given to the three stories which Hesse published in one volume in 1920. The others are Kinderseele (A Child’s Heart, 1970) and Klein und Wagner (Klein and Wagner, 1970). The title story is by far the richest of the three, and it has received the most critical attention.

The story contains strong autobiographical elements. Hesse sometimes described his own calling as that of a magician, and Klingsor is the name of a powerful magician in Wolfram von Eshenbach’s medieval romance Parzival (c.1200); the name also occurs in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800), a work which Hesse admired.

Klingsor’s search for simultaneity, for the annihilation of time, is common to many of Hesse’s heroes. In Siddhartha (1922; English translation, 1951), for example, the protagonist eventually learns that there is no such thing as time, and this is a crucial aspect of his enlightenment. Goldmund in Narziss und Goldmund (1930; Death and the Lover, 1932; better known as Narcissus and Goldmund) also resembles Klingsor in his belief that the purpose of art is “to save what little we may from the linked, never ending dance of death.”

Klingsor’s Last Summer was followed two years later by Siddhartha, another story about the search for the self. Like Klingsor’s Last Summer, Siddhartha affirms the value of both the material and spiritual aspects of life. Stylistically, however, the romantic extravagance of the earlier story is replaced with a simple classical structure, and the final outcome is also very different. Siddhartha succeeds where Klingsor fails; he wins serenity through a quiet contemplation of life, whereas Klingsor’s intoxicated moments of illumination are accompanied by self-torture and fear of death. Klingsor actively attempts to force life into his own mold, while Siddhartha waits and is passive.

Klingsor’s Last Summer represents an intense, idiosyncratic attempt to conquer the forces of psychic chaos in one romantic, dizzy, sensual assault. Hesse was soon to declare that this was not the answer, but when viewed as a stage on the journey, the story has its value. It vividly captures the torments and frustrations of the self as it attempts to push beyond its boundaries and capture the transcendental harmony of the world.

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