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Hesse, Hermann

Entry updated 19 December 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1877-1962) German-born author, in Switzerland 1880-1886, and from 1919; a Swiss citizen from 1923; found "unfit" for active service in World War One, he took a military position dealing with prisoners of war. His long career, which began in the mid-1890s, culminated with the publication of two novels of interest. Die Morgenlandfahrt: Eine Erzälung (1932; trans Hilda Rosner as The Journey to the East 1956 chap), which focuses upon a conclave of European and Asian spiritual eminences who may be thought of as spiritual Secret Masters, is a clear precursor of his last and largest novel and only work unequivocally identifiable as sf, Das Glasperlenspiel [for subtitle see Checklist] (1943 2vols; trans M Savill as Magister Ludi 1949; preferred trans Richard and Clara Winston as The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) 1969); it was largely as a result of this novel that Hesse was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature. Set in a future land closely resembling Europe, it is a complex Utopia whose structure revolves around the eponymous Game, and in that specific sense can be described as an example of ludic fiction (see Johan Huizinga). For the inhabitants of the enclosed school-like community of Castilia, under the initially Godgame-like guidance of Joseph Knecht, their Magister Ludi (or Master of Games), the undescribed aesthetic and intellectual disciplines of the game climax in experiences that – by specific analogy with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – serenely resolve the dissonances of the outside world. Knecht's biography constitutes the bulk of the novel; his poems and essays are published in a non-narrative appendix. Through these various texts, which are suffused with allusions to and renderings of the world-transcending subtleties and graces of the Castilian mind-plays, Knecht's life has a sometimes exalting effect on the reader, though Knecht himself must eventually repudiate the game for a more humane vision of utopia.

Hesse's great popularity in English translation in the 1960s and 1970s derives more directly, however, from earlier and more accessible works, like Demian: die Geschichte einer Jugend (1919; trans W J Strachan 1958 as Hesse) as by Emil Sinclair; Siddhartha: eine indische Dichtung (1922; trans Hilda Rosner 1954) and Der Steppenwolf (1927; trans Basil Creighton as Steppenwolf 1929; trans rev Walter Sorrell 1963), in both of which Jungian depth psychology, Indian mysticism and Weltschmerz are perhaps overpalatably combined, though the Werewolf imagery in the latter remains psychologically effective. Narciß und Goldmund (1930; best trans Leila Vennewitz as Narcissus and Goldmund 1994) allegorizes a quest for some Dionysian fundament through experiences with the Black Death (see Pandemic). These and others of his novels can be read – unwisely – to emphasize any fantasy elements, for at their core they are meditations on transcendence. Piktors Verwandlungen (coll 1925; trans Rika Lesser with added material as Pictor's Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies 1982), Strange News from Another Star and Other Tales (coll trans 1972) and The Complete Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (coll ed and trans Jack Zipes 1995), together assemble from various sources much of his short work, mostly fantasy, though some parable-like sf venues are evoked, not unpalely. [JC]

see also: Arts.

Hermann Hesse

born Calw, Württenberg, Germany: 2 July 1877

died Montagnola, Switzerland: 9 August 1962



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