HERMANN HESSE HAS in the past few years become the center of a cult, a following consisting mostly of the young and which can respond easily to his simple, mythic-symbolic prose. This is lamentable because Hesse's works, many of which lie on the borderline of acceptability, will not get the careful consideration they deserve in the wake of such superficial faddism. The twenty-three Stories of Five Decades (only three of them previously available in English) will certainly lend some more weight to the arguments both for and against Hesse. And assuming that Ralph Manheim's translation is tolerably faithful, these stories might even help clarify some of the underlying problems of Hesse's writing.
Theodor Ziolkowski's introduction is not overly enlightening. It seems particularly shallow to maintain only that Hesse, in his obsession with "his own consciousness and its place in a timeless reality," remains true to himself from start to finish. There is no denying that Hesse usually weaves an introspective tale and so it's only natural to make this theory lend Hesse's work a positive unity it is otherwise wholly lacking. There are, of course, several negative unifying factors: Ziolkowski ignores most of them.
Hesse has been most rightly accused of not being able to grow as a writer. Throughout these stories the same theme repeats itself: loss of innocence or happiness, and a despair of the present, coupled with yearnings for a dream-like childhood of the past. This is true of the earliest piece, "The Island Dream." Here a young man travels in his dream to a fantasy island, where the women of his past, innocent love live in an idyllic setting. But soon he has to leave, sad and frustrated that he never held onto their love when he could. Again in "To Frau Gertrud" the narrator sadly recounts his happiness with a love now gone. "The Marble Works" is perhaps the most encouraging of these early stories. Here Hesse develops a story of lost love into some better understanding than mere whisperings of sadness and frustration.
IT IS THE STILTED tones and stylistic affectations, that often undo these stories. Many of them would be better if he could get away from simplistic generalities and vague impressions. Because, overlooking their constant repetition, there's nothing inherently wrong with his Demianesque adolescent themes. It is the hazy, romantic visions of the past, found even in the later social criticism, "The Homecoming," that smack of trite remembrance.
Hesse, even in his latter days of so-called realism and classicism, refused to let go entirely of his fruitless, banal recherche du temps perdu. The last piece included in this volume, "The Interrupted Class," drifts at times into the same melancholy desire for the carefree, innocent days of youth. But here some resolution of the conflict between innocence and experience finally appears: Hesse declares innocent youth a sham. While it's no transcendence into Blake's realm of "organized innocence," as one might expect from the spiritualist Hesse, it is a sign of some growth, however late it may be.
The inadequacy and self-doubt that dominate most of Hesse's characters are also factors in his attitude toward his writing itself. One of the most explicit examples is a later story called "Dream Journeys." Here he describes the frustrations of a popular writer attempting to become a 'true poet,' a type he describes passingly well in another story, "Chagrin D'Amour." The poor writer is inspired by a dream, but cannot satisfactorily write it out as he thinks a 'true poet' would. Instead he resolves "that he must content himself with being a true poet, a dreamer, a seer, only in his soul, and that his handiwork must retain that of a simple man of letters." The quotation is revealing, especially given the strongly autobiographical nature of Hesse's later stories. Whether Hesse recognized that he was no 'true poet,' or not, it is a fact that the problems in most of his stories, are, to some degree, his own problems. This makes it harder to clearly separate the inadequacies of the hopeless romantics he tries to describe from Hesse's own inadequacies as a writer.
BUT HESSE WAS NOT incapable of good writing. "A Man by The Name of Ziegler," a surrealistic story about a man who can suddenly hear animals speak, is enjoyable probably because Hesse's style is best suited to that genre. "Harry the Steppenwolf" and "An Evening with Dr. Faust," which are along the same lines, also work well.
No one story stands out in this collection and that evenness of quality is the strongest testimony of Hesse's failure to mature as a writer. Over five decades he remained "true to himself" too well. For all of his travels to the East, his studies of Buddhism and mysticism, and his purported interests in Jung and Nietzsche he could only touch the surface of the mood of alienation, which Joyce and Eliot plumbed so fully.
And yet, Hesse has so many clingers-on he can't be passed off lightly. If nothing else, his stasis may have helped him understand his simple viewpoints to their fullest. Most of us at one time or another, have looked to Hesse in the small hope that he may have had something there. Stories of Five Decades doesn't demand to be read; neither does it deserve to be forgotten entirely. It may help explain the curious cult it has engendered.
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