Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse (1927)

Works I have so far read for German Literature Month 2014

1.   Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

2.   Gertrude by Hermann Hesse

3.  "Diary of a School Boy" by Robert Walser (no post)

4.  Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

The schedule and guidelines for participation are on the event webpage.  Just reading the  posts of all the other participants is tremendously informative. 

I am very happy to be once again participating in German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life.   Events like this are one of the great things about being part of the international book blog community.  I know there is a lot of work that goes into a month long event and I offer my thanks to Lizzy and Caroline

This is "Award Winner Week" on German Literature Month.  In 1946 Hermann Hesse (1877 to 1962) won the Nobel Prize and the Goethe Prize.

Unlike Siddhartha, Steppenwolf exceeded my expectations.  I had read both works at least twice long ago when Hesse enjoyed a cult like following during the 1960s in America and Europe.  

I will just post briefly on my return to Stepenwolf after around a forty five year hiatus.  I think what struck me most was about how much of the novel is taken up with sexual identity.  If you push Hesse you can seemingly find pretty primitive notions about women as being worth bothering with only if conventionally beautiful.  I see this everywhere in literature, including in the works of famous female writers.,,and I see this as deeply pernicious and as comodifying of women.  There is a lot of Orientalizing in Steppenwolf.  You do need to be careful how you take this.  Do we see it as representative of the zietgeist of Hesse or is he undercutting it?

The story is narrated by Henry Haller.  He sees himself as part man part wolf of the steppes.  He likes to think of himself as above the "petty bourgeois" but he prefers to live among them.  He was deeply cultured and very into the reading life, obsessed with Goethe and adored Mozart.  He was opposed to the jingoistic war mongering of Germany in the late 1920s.  I greatly relished the "treatise of the Steppenwolf".  I thought it brilliant long ago, I recalled much of it and I loved rereading it.  He is basically alone in the world. He is divorced and has quarreled with his love.  He can only half talk to the people he lives among, partially because of his deep culture.

Much of the book is sort of a treatise on the personality.  The ideas are a mix of Jung, Nietzsche and Hindu theories (as understood by the scholars of the time).  There really is a lot more in this book than Shiddhartha.  Like in that novel, a prostitute (or at least a woman from the demi-monde) plays a central part in the development of the central character and the storyline.  Henry Haller is nearing fifty, a date at he once said he would commit suicide if he had found no point in life.   I think one reason prostitutes, courtesans, public women (Anglo Indian expression) play such a large role in novels of this period and earlier is that men could not simply have long conversations with unattached women without some connection being established.  You can say whatever you like to a prostitute and she can give an honest answer.  You see this in the three Hesse novels I have read this month.  The women in Gertrude are not at all prostitutes and are quite uninteresting, just window dressing.  Including Japanese Tea house culture in this, skilled prostitutes learn they must interest men to keep them coming back so the best learn to sense the kind of conversations a man wants.  This is in part what Hermoine does to Harry.  The character of the South American drug dealing saxophone player Pablo is an interesting one.  He is vaguely androgynous, dark and languid.   We are taken into Harry's sexual identity here.  I think in 1927 in Germany this was pretty daring but then we can reflect on Cristopher Isherwood in Berlin and maybe it is a commentary on Weimar culture.  

The magic theater section of Steppenwolf has a lot of fascinating material, much to think about in the murder sprees and in the sexual fantasies.  

I really am glad I reread Steppenwolf.  It restored my love for Hesse.  In circa 1970 readers did not really ponder the women's issues, the Orientalizing and the feminizing of homosexuals but now I can see these things in Hesse but I am not quite sure how to view them.  Is Hesse simply part of his times or is he decades ahead of his culture.  

If you read only one work by Hesse, make it Steppenwolf.

Mel u

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