Sunday, December 13, 2015
Hot and cold
I don't get Hesse. I was pretty lukewarm on Siddhartha, I enjoyed Demian, but it took me weeks to read Steppenwolf because I had so much trouble getting into it and enjoying it. Maybe it's that the first two books have actual chapters, and you can easily plan a course of reading in bite-sized chunks while Steppenwolf doesn't break down into smaller sections easily. Maybe it's that Demian and Siddhartha are from the perspectives of younger people while Steppenwolf is told by a man who's set in his ways. Maybe it's that Steppenwolf is more pointedly metaphysical and fantastical than the two other stories. Maybe it's just that Steppenwolf is longer. But something about this book just didn't work for me.
And it was all the more frustrating because the first fifty or so pages DID work for me - I really enjoyed and dug into the beginning of this novel but by the time I reached the Steppenwolf pamphlet in the story I lost interest. The book went suddenly from introspective and wounded to masturbatory and lurid.
Maybe it's that the characters Hesse wrote were such boys. They're all clearly male, almost all feverishly masculine, and not a one of them is really mature. And that's tolerable in books about boys but Steppenwolf is a book about a grown-ass man who still wants people to fawn over him and pity him like a spoiled child.
AND THEY DO. Hermine is explicit about babying Harry Haller, the landlady babies him, he throws a tantrum like a baby when his college friend's wife doesn't respect his vision of Goethe. The only characters who don't bend over backwards to give Harry sex or drugs or an education or validation are Mozart in a dream sequence (who instead spends his time rightly teasing Harry) and Harry himself, who is correct in his impatience with what he is.
And I guess I'm frustrated. Hermine is a fantastic character who remains a complete and unsatisfying mystery. There's so much I want to know about her but I left the book knowing nothing about this fascinating woman except that she was willing to drop everything to shape her life around improving Harry's life. The same is true of essentially every other person in this story. They're all interesting and I want to know more but all I learn is that they love and want to care for Harry.
Which I guess is how I'm going to have to enjoy this novel. I'll accept it as a brilliant temple to exploring masculine fragility and the obsession with worshiping male mediocrity, but as anything other than a cutting criticism of those concepts the book is a disappointment.
Hesse, Herman. Steppenwolf. Bantam Books. New York: New York. 1971. (1929)