Klingsor’s Last Summer
by Herman Hesse
I love Hesse, one of my favorite authors ever. Not only is the spirtualism/sensualism dichotomy (which forms the major theme of all of his works) one of the more interesting philosophical questions of mankind, but I can’t think of any author who has continually revealed his own personal neuroses and self-doubts through their characters. This quality has always provoked a certain empathy, admiration, and even self-recognition when I read his books. As someone concerned with those important questions of life, I can identify with his characters, and, because his characters are so autobiographical, I feel like I can consequently identify with Hesse himself.
One of the more fascinating thought exercises related to Hesse is studying his works as attempts to reconcile these two aspects of life: the ethereal, divine and ecstatic with the corporeal, material and sensual. As brilliant as he was, he never figured out how to do it completely, which is what makes all of his novels ultimately unsatisfying.
The interesting part, however, is that each successive novel comes closer to the answer, so that Demian feels by far the least developed, and while Hesse realizes “Nirvana” in Siddhartha, it never feels authentically earned. Steppenwolf feels altogether more on the right track before devolving into a psychedelic madhouse (perhaps precisely because he didn’t know where next to take it?), and then Narcissus and Goldmund and The Journey to the East get even closer to the ultimate reconciliation while still falling short. The Glass Bead Game is by far the most developed of his novels and gets tantalizingly close to a “solution” for this problem, but it still leaves the reader vaguely grasping at the “how” of Hesse’s prescription.
As obsessed as Hesse was with this issue, he was never able to solve it, and it leaves us with the suspicion that it is an insoluble problem, perhaps THE insoluble issue of humanity. His books are so enjoyable, though, precisely because nobody has ever taken up the question with such earnest seriousness. All of his books leave us unsatisfied, but upon further thought one concludes that they are unsatisfactory only because they so unerringly reflect the great human predicament: the paradox of the divine animal.
**Full Disclosure: I can no longer remember concretely, but I suspect that I owe a lot of credit for this analysis to Colin Wilson, from his fantastic The Outsider.**
All of that said, it is clear from this collection of three short stories/novellas that Hesse wrote them before he seriously started thinking of solutions to his Great Problem. They are by far the most depressing of anything I’ve read by him, and the writing is for the most part less interesting as well. The main stylistic problem is that the vast majority of all of these stories takes place in the head of the narrator, so page after page we are just reading their inner monologue. It is a well-written and poetic monologue, but it feels very constrained and fairly boring.
This stylistic problem is most glaring in the second story, “Klein and Wagner,” a tale of a respectable bourgeois banker who suddenly decides to embezzle thousands of dollars, abandon his family and flee to Italy under a pseudonym. After the first few pages of this 80-page novella, there’s really only one way it can end, and it does so, very depressingly.
The high points occur in the 1st story, “A Child’s Heart,” and the eponymous “Klingsor,” where Hesse gives one of the most vivid (and I suspect authentic, given Hesse’s own mental health struggles) portrayals of manic depression that I’ve ever read. In the 1st story, Hesse provides a thoughtful and in-depth psychoanalysis of a boy’s ambivalent relationship with his father, although the fact that it is supposed to be coming from the mind of a child makes it somewhat stilted. An example:
. . . I felt . . . how utterly two well-intentioned human beings can torment each other, and how in such a case all talk, all attempts at wisdom, all reason merely adds another dose of poison, creates new tortures, new wounds, new errors. How was that possible? But it was possible, it was happening. It was absurd, it was crazy, it was ridiculous and desperate — but it was so. 35
In sum, there are many beautiful passages and I quite like Hesse’s prose, but I can only recommend this book to avowed Hesse fans. For the uninitiated, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, or Demian are better bets, and if you like any of those, then Narcissus.