Hesse revealed his contradictory life in letters

February 09, 1992|By Zofia Smardz

SOUL OF THE AGE: SELECTED

LETTERS OF HERMANN HESSE.

Edited by Theodore Ziolkowski.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

347 pages. $25.

What an irony it is to learn that Hermann Hesse, the Swiss-German writer who was a major literary hero of American students in the flower child-oriented '60s and '70s, didn't actually like students himself very much at all.

"I have never been a student and have never felt at all attracted to student life," he wrote to a friend in 1903. "I usually abominate both the academically-minded students and the boisterous set; I thought the whole university setup was ridiculous, and feel it's a pity so many young people think studying is the only decent career open to them."

Moreover, for one whose oeuvre, from "Siddhartha" to "Steppenwolf" with its brandishing of Oriental philosophies and disquisitions on the meaning of existence, speaks so profoundly to the young just setting out on life's quest, Hesse appears to have had little patience with the young generations of his own place and time. In best old-fogey fashion, he charged them with indifference to moral values, lack of any sense of responsibility, blindness to their own flaws, "a superior attitude," and "mental and physical lethargy." Ah, plus ca change.

At the same time, Hesse believed that he was recognized by the German youth of the 1920s as "one of its few leading spirits," although this recognition, "as with all wishes fulfilled in life . . . is happening too late for me to feel particularly exhilarated."

These are just a few of the many surprising, paradoxical and delightful revelations that abound in "Soul of the Age," a collection of letters written by Hesse between 1891 (when he was 14) and his death in 1962.

Hesse was a prolific letter writer, --ing off thousands of pieces of correspondence all his life to all and sundry who wrote to him. The selected missives in this volume are but a fraction of his

output, yet from them emerges a most moving portrait of the artist. In letters to his parents, siblings, fellow authors such as Thomas Mann and Romain Rolland, and countless other friends, colleagues, admirers and disciples, Hesse describes in his own words the tortured and tortuous trajectory of his life.

The early letters are full of the anguish of the moody, suicidal adolescent and young adult, raving that "If life were worth throwing away. . . I'd like to bash my skull against these walls." This despairing note sounds throughout the volume. Hesse watched his first wife break down mentally, a brother commit suicide, and Europe wrack itself with two world wars. He intones repeatedly what must have been a kind of mantra of his existence: Life is empty, life is hard, life seems often unbearable. Yet he breaks through, with his art, to a kind of unquiet peace.

It is enlightening to read Hesse's own descriptions of how he developed a penchant for Buddhism and other Eastern religions, which he found "more spiritual, less intolerant, broader and freer" than the strict Pietist Christianity of his forebears. He is eloquent on the subject of the writer's travails with writing: "If I keep going at the current pace, [the novel] should be ready 10 to 12 years from now," he writes of his first effort, "Peter Camenzind."

A Nobel Prize winner, he nonetheless suffered doubts about his own gifts. He thought that "Siddhartha" would have meaning only "for a small group of people" and "doesn't amount to much as literature," and in later life he all but dismissed his early works as worthless.

As a representative of the soul of his age, Hesse, who became a pacifist during WWI, was also remarkably prescient regarding the likelihood of a second war, the prospect of which he raised in "Steppenwolf" and many of these letters as well. Those describing his dismay at Hitler's rise and German megalomania are among the most eloquent in the collection.

Here, in short, is Hermann Hesse in all his contradictions -- the religious thinker who shunned all churches, the confirmed individualist who believed socialism to be the only acceptable political philosophy, the family man who craved solitude and freedom. One might wish that he had had more of a sense of humor -- there's hardly a spark of it on these pages -- but some men are clearly meant to approach life with utmost seriousness. Hesse did, and turned his earnestness into art.

Smardz is a writer living in Orlando, Fla.

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