Friday, November 21, 2014

It was not surprising that none of these things was any help - Hesse tells two stories

It was the anti-school angle that attracted me to Hesse’s Unterm Rad aka The Prodigy.  I was curious to bounce it off of the French books that attacked school, like those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jules Vallès, and especially to skeptical German-language fiction like Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, another book about sensitive boarding school boys that was published just a year after Hesse.  The Prodigy does not otherwise have much in common with Musil, but does resemble Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry (1855/ 1879) in a number of curious ways.

Hesse reaches towards the thickly described, distantly narrated fiction of Theodor Fontane and Thomas Mann, but formally he has written a classic 19th century German novella.  I think the most distinctive, irritating feature of the novel, the clumsy, sarcastic, intrusive narrator is his own.

I showed that narrator yesterday, and will just give one more example of how he can stomp on his own scenes.  The apple harvest has come in – it’s cider time!

The many children, however, rich and poor alike, ran about with little mugs, all of them carrying an apple they had bitten into in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other; for as long as anyone could remember there had been a saying – quite groundless – that if you ate bread at the cider harvest you did not get the colic.  (Ch. 6, 121)

You either cringe a little at “quite groundless” or you will get along better with the narrator than I did.  The digression on Swabia in Chapter 3 may still test your patience.  “And so this fruitful province whose politically great traditions stretch back into the past still exerts” okay let’s cut that short.

I don’t want to complain any more.  There is some fine stuff in this book.  There is, just a couple of pages after that Swabian nonsense, a student who is so cheap he secretly uses other students’ soap and towels and takes violin lessons, even though he hates the violin, just because they are free.  There is this doctor:

The pale ex-student strolled round in the open air every day, joyless and weary, avoiding even the few opportunities of social intercourse that were offered.  The doctor prescribed drops, cod-liver oil, eggs and cold shower baths.

It was not surprising that none of these things was any help.  (Ch. 6, 119)

No, not such a surprise.  I am piecing together the comic novel hidden in the actual more gloomy one.  But I what I want to end on is the uncanny part of the novel, which is not just obligatory in the German novella but greatly deepens and possibly even upends the meaning of the novel.

After a promising start, Hans has washed out of the theological college, for reasons discussed yesterday.  Back home, he revisits his childhood, including the fairy tale slum, full of vice and crime, which he loved:

The ‘Falken’ was the one spot where a fairy tale, a miracle, a dreadful horror could happen, where any magic was credible, where it was possible to believe in ghosts and where you could feel the same thrilling shudder that you felt as you read old legends…

The activities of the tanners in the various chambers, the cellar yard and on the floors were weird and peculiar, the vast, yawning rooms were as quiet as they were intriguing, the powerfully built and surly master was shunned and dreaded as an ogre, and Liese went about the remarkable house like a fairy protector and mother to all the children, birds, cats and puppies, brimful of kindness, stories and ballad songs.  (Ch. 5, 116-7)

Hans has at this point taken his exams, gone to college, and washed out.  This strange neighborhood and Hans’s strange relation with it has never been hinted at until this point, as if Hesse had just thought of it, as if he knew that the sternness of the schools was inadequate to the story he was telling, a story which is more fundamentally about the loss of childhood.  The more complex symbolic story, in this episode strongly literalized, dominates and perhaps crushes the more topical protest against teaching boys Greek.


  1. "Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, another book about sensitive boarding school boys "

    Surely the chilling thing about Young Törless isthat all the boys are completely insensitive, including Törless himself.

  2. Roger, yes, the sensitivity of the boys in Törless is highly selective.

  3. And here I thought the only Hesse book worth reading was Siddhartha. Even in my foggy breakdown, I learn something new every day.

  4. Why did you think that? The only other one I've read is, in fact Siddhartha, and that was when I was maybe 16. So I am not qualified to say.

    Harold bloom picks out Narcissus and Goldmund and The Glass Bead Game as the Hesse novels he thinks are worth re-reading.

    1. "Why did you think that?" Well, you would need to hear too much of my educational biography to understand why my thinking is so limited. I stand corrected. I'm smiling, but I am corrected.

  5. No, no, no. N&G and TGBG are booring books. Demian and Steppenwolf are the Hesse books everybody loves. Rarer pearls are Rosshalde and Knulp.

  6. I am ignorant about Hesse myself. All opinions are welcome. His reputation in the US is still obscured by his popularity during hippie days. Or such is my impression.

  7. I think Hesse's best works are his early ones: Unterm Rad, Knulp etc., his Märchen (Fairy Tales) and Das Glasperlenspiel.

    By the way, funny fact: Hölderlin was also a student at Maulbronn.

  8. Very interesting to hear some opinions on Hesse, about whom I am so ignorant,

    I saw that about Hölderlin. I was amazed. Does it undermine Hesse's animus, or affirm it? Hölderlin is a special case, I guess.