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German, later naturalised Swiss writer and poet, b. Calw, Württemberg (Germany) 1877-07-02, d. Montagnola, Ticino (Switzerland) 1962-08-09. Nobel laureate in 1946.

Hesse was born the son of a Baltic missionary and grew up in Calw and Basel. During his first stay in Basel he acquired Swiss citizenship (originally he was a Russian citizen) but was later forced to renounce it and became a citizen of Württemberg in order to pursue a free education which would train him for the clergy. He eventually dropped out of his Protestant seminary and completed his education at a secular school instead.

"...it was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality"

His first poetry was written while he worked as an apprentice to a book seller and was published after he left that job in 1898. In 1899 he moved back to Basel and wrote articles for a local newspaper which made him known to the public. Over the next 20 years he became a contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He moved to Switzerland permanently in 1912 and, disillusioned with Germany after World War I, reacquired Swiss citizenship in 1923. Despite his later reputation as a pacifist, he did volunteer for service in 1914 but was declared medically unfit and appointed to a post at the German embassy in Bern. During World War I, his publications did not go down well with the German wartime establishment and he assumed the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair, a figure who would later star in Demian. In the 1930s Hesse became one of the many authors banned in Nazi Germany.

His breakthrough as a writer came with Peter Camenzind in 1904, also the beginning of a long-lasting relationship with his publishers S. Fischer of Berlin. A trip to India in 1911 laid the foundation for the dreamy, mythical style that would mark most of his novels and find its best expression in Siddhartha. In 1916, he made contact with Jungian psychology as a patient of one of Jung's disciples following a nervous breakdown, later as a patient of Carl Jung himself. This influence too would be present in most of his future work. Of his influences he himself said:

"Of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy."

Hesse is most famous for his novels, most prominently Siddhartha and Steppenwolf but was also a very prolific poet and deep thinker. His period of true genius began with the publication of Knulp in 1915 and lasted until Narziss und Goldmund in 1930. Before and after those dates, his work was still quite remarkable but the writings of the 1915-1930 period were what made him one of the greatest literary figures the German-speaking world has produced since Goethe. Hesse stands alongside contemporary figures like Rainer-Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka as a representative of the most productive period of German literature to date.

His later work went hand in hand with the rise of the Nazis and World War II. His writing became even more political than it had been during WWI and many of his short stories assume a didactic character. Already 68 at the end of the war, he lamented witnessing two generations make the same stupid mistakes. In some ways his commentaries and wry sense of humour resembled those of another genius of his time, Albert Einstein, both being able to present their view as a certain fact of life, not just opinion. He was always bitter about the stance of the German state towards him but took solace in the fact that he was aware of being one of the few consistent and vocal representative of a pacifist movement that included many young Germans. Product of a multicultural background himself, he was one of the prominent internationalists of his time.

"The hatred of the official Germany, culminating under Hitler, was compensated for by the following I won among the young generation that thought in international and pacifist terms..."

Already ailing then and suffering from an eye disease, his latter years would not be as productive as those before the war and he spent the final years of his life in relative seclusion in southern Switzerland, where he also died in 1962.

Bibliography:

I've decided to leave most titles in their German original since his best known work is easily recognisable by these titles. Some are poetry collections (including anything that says Gedichte), some are shorter works that hover somewhere between novel and story status, others are collections of essays and other writings. Hesse was one of the most prolific writers the 20th century saw, a complete list would warrant a node of its own.

  • Romantische Lieder (1898)
  • Gedichte (1902)
  • Peter Camenzind (1904)
  • Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel, 1906)
  • Gertrud (1910)
  • Unterwegs (1911)
  • Roßhalde (1914)
  • Musik des Einsamen (1915)
  • Schön ist die Jugend (1915)
  • Knulp (1915)
  • Demian (1919)
  • Gedichte des Malers (1920)
  • Klingsors letzter Sommer (1920)
  • Siddhartha (1922)
  • Kurgast (1925)
  • Die Nürnberger Reise (1927)
  • Der Steppenwolf (1927)
  • Narziss und Goldmund (1930)
  • Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932)
  • Stunden im Garten (1936)
  • Gedenkblätter (1937)
  • Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game, 1943)
  • Piktors Verwandlung (1954)

Recommended reading: Siddharta and Demian are the most approachable for anyone unfamiliar with Hesse. Steppenwolf as well as Narziss und Goldmund are both classics but more demanding on the reader and suitable for someone already familiar with Hesse's style. One item not mentioned in the bibliography, Der Europäer (The Last European, 1946) is also a must read.

I'd be hard pressed to name a favourite. I first discovered Hesse in the sixth grade or so in a collection of autumn poetry and what struck me then was the smooth wave of melancholy emanating from this writing. Not that I'd have described it with those words at the time but that's pretty much the feeling. A few years later I had a borrowed copy of Siddharta in my hands and noticed that same, well, shall we say aethereal, feeling. I feel like what he writes really comes from a higher state of consciousness and he was one of the most apt at conveying it with the clumsy vehicle of language. There's so much left to read between the lines, much more than just the story.

There's something magical about this man's work and it's not just the Magical Theatre in Steppenwolf. I think, if I did have to pick a favourite, I suppose it would be Narziss und Goldmund, the story of a long voyage whose style would later be emulated by many, most famously Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. That might just be his best work.

Dream on.

Factual sources:
Markus Kolbeck's "Bibliomaniac" archive
Buchhandlung Fuchs, Calw, Germany.
Original text for E2
Nobel e-museum