Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse

It is sometimes difficult returning to a book that you read in your late teens and have not re-read since then. There is a huge accretion of memory (often erroneous as memory can be) and emotion, especially when it is one of those books you recall as having had a profound effect. So much so that I went on to read whatever of Hesse I could find.

Returning to this, I am struck by two things that I probably didn’t consider on the original reading. The first is the language. My German has never been good enough to tackle something like this so I rely on translation. That means I do not know if it is the original or the translation that is so stiff-necked, so formal, but it simply felt at odds with the subject of the book. The structure is by no means standard for a novel. Hesse is happy to play with that. It seems unlikely he would be so in thrall to his native language that he would not know how to match the language to the various moods of the book.

The second is that for me, this will always be a book associated with adolescence and a flowering of my creative side. To my adult self it seems a juvenile work. Interesting, but a bit embarrassing, a bit too conscious of its literariness. This does not mean I do not like it. Every work as ambitious as this must be allowed a level of ‘roughness’ because it is venturing into places no one has been before.

Although a novel this stems from an age before writing courses and professionalisation of the art dictated current ‘axioms’. It is a novel of ideas. Whilst things happen (although not very much), the work is more interested in the development and exploration of ideas. The plot, such as it is, is a very loose framework on which to hang the discourse. Characters are almost irrelevant.

When I was reading the end section I was put in mind of the TV show The Prisoner (the original, not the appalling ‘remake’). That too had its faults, but it was nonetheless intriguing and explored many of the themes to be found in Steppenwolf - about identity, about being trapped, about escape, about trying to make sense and impose a pattern on an essentially chaotic world. And ending with a seemingly bizarre series of surreal events from which ideas and messages can be constructed to your heart’s content.

I am glad I took the time to revisit, and I would recommend it to younger readers as it is a book that anyone concerned with the nature of our inner lives should read; but it should be read early when it has time to imprint those essential messages, especially those about the way in which the life of the mind cannot be sustained without recourse to the feeding of the body and the senses.