Strange News from Another Star and Other Tales
by Herman Hesse (1919)
It says something about the power of Hesse’s writing that more than one of these stories moved me despite my not being at all in the mood for anything even minimally impactful. Certain traits of his writing — the earnestness, the melancholy, the perpetual search for the sublime — never cease to awe me, no matter how reluctant I am to be impressed. He’s a fiction writer who, should you give yourself over to him, will get you closer to the secrets of existence than any other storyteller. And as seen here, that ability was alive and well even in his formative days.
“Augustus” – One of the stronger entries that sets the template for many of the stories here: a young man, a wise angel/god/master, and learning the secrets of happiness. “The Poet,” “Flute Dream” and “The Hard Passage” were lesser variations on this theme and vey similar to each other. The last was the best of these, with a powerful, haunting ending. The titular “Strange News” was perhaps the most distinct story but a little too earnest for my taste, and also the least focused.
The stars of the collection are the last two stories. “Faldum” is a glorious, depressing tale of a man who turns into a mountain — it does more to impress upon one the pointlessness of human existence than any fiction I’ve ever read. The way Hesse zooms out from the human to the earth perspective is both dizzying and electrifying.
“Iris” is the beautiful, tragic story of a man who sacrifices everything in the hunt for childish joy and innocence. It’s unclear to me if Hesse acknowledges the impossibility of this search; he either denies the legitimacy of this notion or accepts it while wishing it weren’t so. Either way, attentive readers are left with a repudiation of their shallow existence, and possibly even a faint twinge of desire for Hesse’s pure life of contemplation, no matter how unrealistic it may seem.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Hesse is not a perfect writer, and his philosophy is similarly flawed. But I love him for his never-ending quest to solve existence, and his admirable bravery in facing the question head on. It’s a special talent that could make such a spiritual odyssey so incredibly captivating on the page.