Academic journal article German Quarterly

Understanding Hermann Hesse. The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Understanding Hermann Hesse. The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor

Article excerpt

Tusken, Lewis W Understanding Hermann Hesse. The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1998. xiv + 253 pp. $29.95 hardcover.

In keeping with editorial intent, the more than two dozen books that have appeared in the University of South Carolina's Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature series are introductory studies of the lives and major works of prominent modern authors. These studies are more mindful of students and non-academic readers than of scholars and accordingly provide reliable information and judicious literary assessments rather than trailblazing analyses. Most of the books in this series serve this express purpose admirably and Tusken's is no exception.

Such scholars as Joseph Mileck (1958,1977, 1978), Ernst Rose (1965), Theodore Ziolkowski (1965), Mark Boulby (1967), George W Field (1970) and Edwin Casebeer (1972) had amply informed American Hesse-enthusiasts of the sixties and seventies. A revision of Hesse to inform the turn-of-the-century generation of Hesse readers was overdue. It was Tusken's intent and hope that his book would serve that purpose: it was to afford an updated look at the evolving inner and outer circumstances of Hesse's life and the accordant evolving thematic continuum and evolving stylistic devices ofhis art. Understanding Hesse does just that.

Given that autobiography is the very matrix of Hesse's art and that authorial intent and meaning are therefore paramount in interpretation, Tusken opted deliberately for a systematic biographical approach, a methodology exercised by many of the above-mentioned Hesse-pundits, but rarely as rigorously. Indeed, biography per se almost overshadows Tusken's application of biography for interpretative purposes.

A three-page preludial chronology of Hesse's life and art is a harbinger of the prominent role biography is to play in Tusken's Hesse redivivus. The book's introductory chapter is a compact and quite suspensive recounting of Hesse's Pietist heritage, his troubled childhood in Calw, his painful formative school years in Goppingen, Maulbronn and Cannstatt, his apprenticeship in a machine shop in Calw and then in a bookstore in Tubingen, his basic isolation and early immersion in literature, and of his inauspicious marriage to Maria Bernoulli and subsequent retreat to a primitive farmhouse in remote Gaienhofen on the Bodensee.

This pure biography is extended in chapters four and six to Hesse's rustic life in Gaienhofen (1904-1912) and to his politically, domestically, and psychologically difficult years in Bern (1912-1919). The rest of Hesse's inner and outer life becomes an integral part of the book's remaining nine chapters, each of which deals exclusively with one of Hesse's major works. All told, virtually half of Tusken's study is given to biography.

Intent only upon Hesse's major prose works, Tusken, but for occasional brief asides, virtually bypasses Hesse's volumes of poetry, essays and shorter tales. The most significant of Hesse's traditional, unproblematic pre-1914 novels (Peter Camenzind, Beneath the Wheel, and Ro#halde) require and receive the least of critical examination, the enigmatic and much more challenging novels written from the First to the Second World War (Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Journey to the East) are accorded their merited more detailed and reflective attention, and The Glass Bead Game, Hesse's magnum opus, is actually scrutinized chapter by chapter.

Tusken's modus operandi in each of his exegetic chapters is more or less identical: an appropriate common approach for tales that are arguably without exception metaphors of Hesse's inner and outer life. …

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