Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hermann Hesse's formation

"A Poet of Nothing At All" is Richard C Helt's account of Hesse's years in Tubingen and Basel. After his tumultuous and rebellious youth, Hesse arrived in Tubingen as an apprentice bookseller and began a dual, ordered life. The daytime was given over to learning the necessary mechanics of his trade, the night to the learning and practice of literature that would subvert the necessity of living out that trade.

The text is worthily pedestrian but never less than helpful in forming an understanding of how Hesse slowly accumulated the literary means of his breakout. It was achieved first in poetry, and then in prose, culminating in the publication of Peter Camenzind, the novel that enabled him to walk into a writer's life.

I was struck by how an author who in English is almost exclusively known as a novelist, in German has a dual life as poet as well (and, in fact, he was also an accomplished and imaginative watercolourist).

He was extraordinarily disciplined - an autodidact reading himself into a knowledge of European literature, art and cultural history and listening and playing (the violin) into a profound understanding of European music. Later this knowledge was to be broadened especially in the direction of Asia. He was a student without a university, and his friends, most of whom were university trained, recognised his equality (in an age that was consumed by attention to every subtle difference of status).

I was struck by his wholly tortuous, and wounding, relationship with his parents. Encased in their rigorous Swabian piety, they looked on unsympathetically at the person to whom they had given birth, praying for his soul, ignoring or disapproving of his literary progress: a God given talent wasted on a febrile aestheticism! It was a distancing that bit deep.

Hesse was in pursuit of beauty, a beauty that lured one into a loving compassion for the world. His parents saw a world on which the order of morality needed to be imposed and whose beauty was a luring distraction. It was an irreconcilable clash (as it is always).

It was also lovely to discover that one's favourite author shared common loves from the outset. Here, for example, is described his fascination and love of the Swiss artist, Arnold Bocklin, who died in Basel when Hesse lived there. It is a perfect exemplar of his own art - a realistic symbolism that inhabits this world but invites in another, the other that is always available, acting behind a thin veil.

This is Bocklin's 'Life is a Short Dream' that Hesse described as, "Childhood desire, the romance of adulthood, the urge to accomplish, and old age are presented in quite wonderful figures within a small space". The whole round of a life on which Hesse was solidifying from his forming space that was Basel.

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