Thursday, October 28, 2021

Levi the Memorious: A Survivor's Tale

I think that the first time I actually read anything by Primo Levi was around the turn of the millennium, when a colleague of mine extracted a chapter from If This is a Man for inclusion in an anthology of readings for our then-new "Life Writing" course.

I knew the name, of course, and had seen The Periodic Table and other books of his displayed on many bookshelves. I don't know quite why I hadn't opened any of them up till then.

Fear, I suppose - fear of the horrors they might contain. I'd read a number of books and watched a great many documentaries about the Holocaust by then, and it was getting harder to persuade myself to endure all that again each time - shameful though that undoubtedly sounds.

I still remember my shock at reaching the last line of Levi's chapter 13: "October 1944":

Primo Levi: If This is a Man (1947)

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.
Everything else in the chapter - in the book, even - is described so calmly and dispassionately, that the last line explodes like a bomb.

You begin to get some idea of the sheer pressure of need for expression of the events and sights in his book. It's not a masterpiece because of the scenes it depicts. Nor is it a masterpiece in spite of the author's closeness to his material. No, it's a masterpiece because of what it is: the organic expression by an exceptionally alert intelligence of a series of horrors almost beyond communication.

Primo Levi: If This is a Man / The Truce (1947 / 1963)

After that I began to collect Levi's books - in a rather desultory way. I guess I thought that since nothing could possibly top the white-hot intensity of If This is a Man, his other works must be some kind of comedown just in the nature of things ...

The Truce was very good also, though: completely different from his first book about the concentration camp, but equally absorbing.

Primo Levi: The Periodic Table (1975)

On top of that, The Periodic Table and The Wrench both do a great job of communicating the absorbing interest of the world of work to dedicated professionals: chemists and construction workers, respectively.

Primo Levi: The Wrench (1978)

So it did come as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I'd somehow missed any announcement of the sumptuous, three-volume edition of his Complete Works in English pictured at the head of this post.

And even more of a shock when, before ordering it, I checked out some of the online reviews. Here's William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic Monthly (December 2015):
Three volumes, 3,000 pages: The Complete Works of Primo Levi, in its very girth and exhaustiveness, asserts a claim about the man whose oeuvre it collects. Best known for his Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man, as well as for The Periodic Table — a book about his life in, with, and through chemistry — Levi should be seen, as the collection’s publicity material puts it, as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.” Novels, stories, poems, essays, science writing, science fiction, newspaper columns, articles, open letters, book reviews: His every word is worth preserving, translating, purchasing, pondering. To read them all together, the collection insists, is to see the man anew.
I say this with reluctance — The Complete Works, which was 15 years in the making, is clearly a labor of love, meticulously edited by Ann Goldstein and seamlessly carried over from Italian, in fresh renditions, by a team of 10 translators — but the claim, on the volumes’ own evidence, is manifestly false. Levi is a great writer. He is a vivid writer, an unflinching writer, an indispensable writer. But he is also a limited writer, both in talents and in range. It does no favors, to the reader or to him, to try to rank him with the likes of Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Beckett. His achievement, in his work about the Holocaust and its aftermath — If This Is a Man, The Truce, and The Drowned and the Saved, as well as parts of Lilith and The Periodic Table — is significant enough. Surrounding that achievement with masses of ephemera only obscures it. A selected works, at half the length for half the price (The Complete Works lists for $100), would have served him better.
$100? Try $US30.49! One of the reasons I was so quick to order the book was that I couldn't believe how cheap it was. Reviews such as the one above must have been pretty effective in killing any appetite for this edition, swollen - as Deresiewicz alleges it is - 'with masses of ephemera'.

Not all the reviews were in this vein, mind you. Here's a nice, rather more subtly reasoned one by Robert S. C. Gordon from the website Public Books (15 January 2016):
This unity-in-variety is the Ariadne’s thread that helps lead a way through the labyrinth of Levi’s complete oeuvre. Not all his readers will be willing to follow the thread along all its meanderings; indeed, responses to the Complete Works have already divided somewhat between those willing to listen to the modulated, lighter, more elfin tones in some corners of this volume and those who, perhaps understandably, prefer to split the work into his greater and lesser achievements and pass over his forays into occasional writing, science-fantasy, zoomorphic poetry, and the rest.
The thread is worth following, however. The harmonies and dissonances between the modes of Levi’s work are, to a significant degree, what make him such a distinctive, subtle, and compelling ethical writer, one who ponders how to live in the face of both the extraordinary and the everyday, not through abstractions but through fragments of stories and vignettes of sentient experience and intelligent invention.
The Complete Works facilitates the task by restoring the chronology of publication of Levi’s books.
To sum up, then, let's complete our hat-trick with Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (23/9/15):
For such a gift as The Complete Works of Primo Levi, one should probably do little more than express thanks. The captious, however, might complain that Levi’s autobiographical writings are somewhat repetitive, his essays a bit dry and his fantasy fiction rather labored. Still, these are just cavils. Whether as witness or imaginative artist, Levi stands high among the truly essential European writers of the past century.
With friends like that, who needs enemies? "Repetitive ... dry ... laboured" - these are not bookselling adjectives. Nor is Robert Gordon's mention of the "lighter, more elfin tones" of some of his more fanciful stories particularly enticing.

Primo Levi: The Mirror Maker (1989)

Is it true? Or rather, is there truth in it? I fear so. They're not just making it up out of whole cloth. It isn't all part of an anti-Levi conspiracy. Some of his slighter stories - and there are a great many of them - are a bit ephemeral. Nor does much of his "science-fantasy" reach the dizzying heights of fellow survivor of the Nazis Stanisław Lem.

Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved (1986)

It's tempting just to leave the matter there - to conclude that Levi is a writer whose primary value lies in his autobiographical testimony as an Auschwitz survivor, and that the rest is simply window-dressing. Tempting, yes, but fundamentally wrong. The story is much more complex than that.

Primo Levi: Opere Complete (2017)

Opere Complete. Ed. Marco Belpoliti in collaboration with Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi. Introduction by Daniele Del Giudice. 2 vols. 1997. Nuova Universale Einaudi. Torino: Einaudi, 2017.
    Vol. I:
  1. Se questo è un uomo ('If This is a Man', 1947)
  2. Se questo è un uomo (1958) e appendice
  3. La tregua ('The Truce', 1963)
  4. Storie Naturali ('Natural Histories', 1966)
  5. Vizio di forma ('Flaw of Form', 1971)
  6. Il sistema periodico ('The Periodic Table', 1975)
  7. La chiave a stella ('The Star Wrench', 1978)
  8. Appendice [Appendices]
  9. Note ai testi [Notes on the text]
  10. Vol. II:
  11. La ricerca delle radici ('The Search for Roots', 1981)
  12. Lilít e altri racconti ('Lilith and Other Stories', 1981)
  13. Se non ora, quando? ('If Not Now, When?', 1982)
  14. Ad ora incerta ('At an Uncertain Hour', 1984)
  15. Altre poesie ('Other Poems', 1984)
  16. L'altrui mestiere ('Other People's Trades', 1985)
  17. Racconti e saggi ('Stories and Essays', 1986)
  18. I sommersi e i salvati ('The Drowned and the Saved', 1986)
  19. Pagine sparse ('Scattered Pages', 1947-1987)
  20. Appendice alle pagine sparse [Appendices to the scattered pages]
  21. Note ai testi [Notes on the Text]
In 1997, ten years after Levi's death, Marco Belpoliti assembled a two-volume edition of Levi's Complete Works in Italian. This gave readers everywhere a good overview of the basic canon of his works, including scattered articles, poems, and other uncollected pieces.

Ann Goldstein (1949- )

It also inspired American editor Ann Goldstein, more famous as the translator of Elena Ferrante's bestselling Neapolitan Novels, to attempt a more-or-less complete English version of Primo Levi. As Wikipedia puts it:
The effort of obtaining translation rights took six years, while its compilation and translation took seventeen years ... Goldstein oversaw the team of nine translators and translated three of Levi's books.

The one significant absence from the English edition is the anthology above, which is included in the Italian version. This does make a certain amount of sense. A number of the passages chosen by Levi were originally written in English and other languages, and in cases where the Italian translations diverge from their originals - as they often do - it's a difficult decision whether to correct or simply transcribe the results.

The book is, in any case, already available in a 2001 translation by Peter Forbes.

Which brings us to the question of whether all of these new translations are actually improvements on the original English versions? You'll recall that passage I quoted above, from the end of Chapter 13 of Levi's If This is a Man in Stuart Woolf's 1960 translation? Here it is again in the new 2015 edition:

Primo Levi: Complete Works: I (2015): 123-24.

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk, on the top level, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his cap on his head, his torso swaying violently. Kuhn is thanking God that he was not chosen.
Kuhn is out of his mind. Does he not see, in the bunk next to him, Beppo the Greek, who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow, and knows it, and lies there staring at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Does Kuhn not know that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty - nothing at all in the power of man to do - can ever heal?
If I were God, I would spit Kuhn's prayer out upon the ground.
There are a lot of small changes here. Kuhn's beret has become a 'cap'; he thanks God that he was not chosen, rather than thanking him because he has not been chosen; he's out of his mind rather than out of his senses; a number of phrases have been shifted around, greatly increasing the number of commas. All these are fairly standard consequences of revisiting a piece of your own prose.

What I did not expect, however, was that change in the last sentence of the chapter. That is significant. This is how it read in 1960:
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.
And this is how it reads in 2015:
If I were God, I would spit Kuhn's prayer out upon the ground.
Ten cutting, powerful words have become 13, with a subjunctive added and some extraneous 'ground' to spit on, as well ... But then, how does the sentence read in the original Italian?
Se io fossi Dio, sputerei a terra la preghiera di Kuhn.
A literal translation of that would be: "If I were God, I would spit to earth the prayer of Kuhn."

So, much though I personally prefer the first version of Woolf's translation of this sentence, I'm forced to agree that his revised take on it is far closer to what Levi actually wrote.

Primo Levi (1940s)

On the minus side, then, Stuart Woolf is not necessarily a better stylist after fifty years of brooding on the book than he was in his first flush of enthusiasm. On the plus side, though, he has contributed a fascinating afterword to this new edition in which he reveals just how closely he worked with Levi while preparing that original version.

He also explains that the book's long history of revisions and reprintings has necessitated a number of changes simply to keep up with its author's latest intentions. He is, after all, the only one of the original translators of Levi's works to have been asked to re-vision his work for the new edition. It's hard to imagine anyone else having Levi's work so close to his heart.

So, yes, many analogous quibbles could be made about these new translations of Levi's principal works. Many of them are significantly less idiomatic and more pedantic in tone: careful to preserve the original italian idioms and wordplay even when this has the effect of interrupting the narrative or the train of thought.

But that's what comes of declaring him a 'classic'. All of a sudden the tiniest details seem more significant - it's not just a matter of a temporary publishing boom, but rather of providing reliable details for readers and scholars now and in the future.

Something has been lost, but more - I would say - has been gained in the process. After all, those older editions are still in existence. They haven't been superseded by the new super-edition. Speaking personally, though, I think this new Complete Works will be the mainstay of my own Levi reading from now on.

Art Spiegelman: Maus (1980-1991)

The title of this blogpost was meant as a kind of double-barrelled pun. On the one hand it references cartoonist Art Spiegelman's celebrated graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale, which first appeared, piecemeal, chapter by chapter, in Raw magazine, the comics journal he co-founded with his wife Françoise Mouly, and which was subsequently collected in two volumes: 'My Father Bleeds History' (1986), 'And Here My Troubles Began' (1991).

Jorge Luis Borges: Funes el memorioso (1942)

However, it also makes a nod towards Jorge Luis Borges' great story 'Funes the Memorious', which records the strange fate of one Ireneo Funes, who hits his head in a fall from his horse, and is thereafter cursed to remember absolutely everything which has ever happened to him. He dies shortly afterwards, but first spends a long night describing his plight to the narrator, a somewhat stylised version of Borges himself.

Gustave Doré: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1875)

Like Funes, Levi was forced to remember. He had no choice in the matter. And, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner - a comparison he made himself more than once: in fact it supplied the title for his 1984 book of poems Ad Ora Incerta ['At an uncertain hour'] - he had 'strange power of speech,' as well as a compulsion to seek out listeners.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
Reading this new edition of Primo Levi puts us in the almost unique position of watching a man not bred to the trade in the process of learning how to write. There are the inevitable stumbles and false starts as he moves from the white-hot assurance of his first memoir into the stories and essays which gradually became the mainstay of his life as a modern 'man of letters.'

Those two first volumes of stories, Natural Histories and Flaw of Form, are particularly telling in this respect. The stories are, at times, quite painfully bad - but each one teaches their author something, and gradually they begin to improve. They all have something, some germ of a complex and interesting idea, but it takes some time for him to reach the more sustained accomplishment of a book such as Lilith and Other Stories.

This is a development almost entirely obscured until now by the piecemeal appearance of his fiction in English translation. Four volumes of miscellaneous stories and essays in Italian became a bewildering labyrinth of partial English reprints, translated at different times by very different people. For this alone we should be grateful to the new edition.

Finally, then, I'd have to say that in a case like this I certainly believe that more is better. Would 'a selected works, at half the length for half the price' really 'have served him better', as William Deresiewicz claims in his review above? It might have made Levi seem more of a careful stylist, but I'm not sure that it would have done justice to the more complex and exacting details of his literary legacy.

Primo Levi: If Not Now, When? (1982)

In my case, for instance, having read in Carole Angier's 2002 biography of the lukewarm reception of Levi's one full-length novel, If Not Now, When?, I never even felt tempted to read it until running into it here, in volume 2 of this chronologically arranged edition.

But that would have been a great loss, because it's a wonderfully nuanced and accomplished piece of work. Clearly it was not to the taste of many readers in 1982, who were expecting a repeat of If This is a Man, but that's probably because it's composed more in the style of one of the great classics of European realism.

It echoes Tolstoy's Sebastopol Tales, or Väinö Linna's Finnish war novel The Unknown Soldier - even Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk - far more than the standard-issue Holocaust book that was expected of him. Levi had, in any case, made it clear that he considered the camps an inappropriate subject for fiction. No Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Life is Beautiful for him.

In any case, readers will now be able to decide any and all such matters for themselves, without the no doubt well-intentioned Bowdlerising tendencies of critics such as Deresiewicz.

Primo Levi (1980s)

Primo Levi (1930s)

Primo Michele Levi

  1. If This Is a Man / The Truce. [‘Se questo è un uomo’, 1947/58 / ‘La tregua’ 1963]. Trans. Stuart Woolf. 1960 & 1965. Introduction by Paul Bailey. 1971. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  2. The Periodic Table. [‘Il sistema periodico’, 1975]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1984. Essay by Philip Roth. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000.

  3. If Not Now, When? [‘Se non ora, quando?’, 1982]. Trans. William Weaver. 1985. An Abacus Book. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK) Limited, 1992.

  4. The Wrench. [‘La chiave a stella’, 1978]. Trans. William Weaver. 1986. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1987.

  5. Moments of Reprieve. [‘Lilìt e altri racconti’, 1981]. Trans. Ruth Feldman. 1986. Introduction by Michael Ignatieff. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

  6. Other People’s Trades. [‘L'altrui mestiere’, 1985]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1986. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1989.

  7. The Drowned and the Saved. [‘I sommersi e i salvati’, 1986]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1986. Introduction by Paul Bailey. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1988.

  8. Collected Poems. [‘L'osteria di Brema’, 1975 / ‘Ad ora incerta’, 1984]. Trans. Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann. 1988. London: Faber, 1991.

  9. The Mirror Maker: Stories & Essays. [‘Racconti e Saggi’, 1986]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1989. London: Methuen, 1990.

  10. The Sixth Day and Other Tales. [‘Storie naturali’ (as Damiano Malabaila), 1966 / ‘Vizio di forma’, 1971]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1990. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1991.

  11. The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology. [‘La ricerca delle radici’, 1981]. Trans. Peter Forbes. 2001. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

  12. The Black Hole of Auschwitz. [‘L'asimmetria e la vita: Articoli e saggi 1955-1987’, ed. Marco Belpoliti, 2002]. Trans. Sharon Wood. UK: Polity Press, 2005.

  13. [with Leonardo de Benedetti]. Auschwitz Report [‘Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz - Upper Silesia)’, 1945]. Trans. Judith Woolf. UK: Verso, 2006.

  14. A Tranquil Star. [‘Vizio di forma’, 1971 / ‘Lilìt e altri racconti’, 1981]. Trans. Ann Goldstein & Alessandra Bastagli. 2006. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008.

  15. The Complete Works of Primo Levi. Ed. Ann Goldstein. Introduction by Toni Morrison. 3 vols. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 2015.
      Vol. 1:
    1. If This Is a Man. Trans. Stuart Woolf (1947)
    2. The Truce. Trans. Ann Goldstein (1963)
    3. Natural Histories. Trans. Jenny McPhee (1966)
    4. Flaw of Form. Trans. Jenny McPhee (1971)
    5. Vol. 2:
    6. The Periodic Table. Trans. Ann Goldstein (1975)
    7. The Wrench. Trans. Nathaniel Rich (1978)
    8. Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1949-1980. Trans. Alessandria Bastagli & Francesco Bastagli (2015)
    9. Lilith and Other Stories. Trans. Ann Goldstein (1981)
    10. If Not Now, When? Trans. Anthony Shugaar (1982)
    11. Vol. 3:
    12. Collected Poems. Trans. Jonathan Galassi (1984)
    13. Other People’s Trades. Trans. Anthony Shugaar (1985)
    14. Stories and Essays. Trans. Anne Milano Appel (1986)
    15. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Michael F. Moore (1986)
    16. Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1981-1987. Trans. Alessandria Bastagli & Francesco Bastagli (2015)

  16. Interviews:

  17. [with Tullio Regge]. Conversations. ['Dialogo', 1984]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1989. Introduction by Tullio Regge. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

  18. The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987. [‘Conversazioni e interviste 1963–1987’, ed. Marco Belpoliti, 1997]. Ed. & Trans. Robert Gordon. 2001. New York: The New Press, 2001.

  19. Secondary:

  20. Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. 1996. Trans. Steve Cox. 1998. London: Aurum Press Ltd., 1999.

  21. Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography. 2002. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.

  22. Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi: The Elements of a Life. London: Vintage, 2003.

Martin Argles: Primo Levi

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Michele 2021

Wikipedia informs me that there's now a specific term for a Festschrift compiled and published by electronic means on the internet. It's called a Webfestschrift.

They also state that this German word has been naturalised so thoroughly into English that it no longer requires italics. But what exactly does it mean? I've defined it, in context, as a "write of celebration" - a series of essays or (as in this case) poems and short memoirs designed to mark the retirement of a great writer or scholar.

Since January I've been working - with the help of many friends and contributors - on a Festschrift to celebrate the life and work of New Zealand poet Michele Leggott on the occasion of her retirement from the University of Auckland. That site went live yesterday, on Michele's birthday.

Here's a link to it, along with a table of contents:

Michele Leggott: DIA (1994)

Michele 2021
A Birthday Festschrift for Michele Joy Leggott

(January 19 - October 18, 2021)

    Jack Ross: Preface: October 18, 2021
    About Michele

  1. John Adams: Michele, reading
  2. Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Dateline: Michele, in eight moments
  3. Pam Brown: mezzo cento
  4. Ruby Brunton: And Still the Earth is Round - Poem for Michele
  5. Janet Charman: haiku
  6. Lynley Edmeades: Listening In
  7. Frances Edmond: For Michele’s festschrift
  8. Martin Edmond: Michele Leggott
  9. Murray Edmond: After Gilgamesh: for michele
  10. Sue Fitchett: Homage to Michele Leggott who cured a comma addiction
  11. Paula Green: out of the dark
  12. Bernadette Hall: on adding up the loves of our lives
  13. David Howard: VIEW FINDER
  14. Bronwyn Lloyd: Adventures in the Archives
  15. Therese Lloyd: Regift
  16. Cilla McQueen: Poet-to-Poet
  17. John Newton: Big Projects for Poetry (& Criticism)
  18. Tim Page: Michele Festschrift
  19. Mary Paul: Rā whānau ki a koe, Michele
  20. Chris Price: Works and Days
  21. Jack Ross: The Gulf
  22. Lisa Samuels: Joy Division
  23. Tracey Slaughter: is there a goddess for this?
  24. Penny Somervaille: Dear Michele
  25. Helen Sword: Walking with Michele
  26. Fredrika van Elburg: Working with Michele
  27. Ann Vickery: Floating Largesse
  28. Susannah Whaley: Festschrift
  29. Michael Whittaker: My path to Michele
  30. Joanne Wilkes: Michele Leggott

Michele Leggott: Heartland (2014)

It's been great fun working on this project. By its very nature it had to be hush-hush, and I was very happy to learn from Michele yesterday that we had indeed succeeded in keeping it secret. Even people she was in touch with every day had managed to avoid dropping any hints.

Of course, it contains contributions by only a few of the people who would like to celebrate and remember Michele's influence on them. In that sense it's a start rather than a full-stop to a consideration of her career to date. Now she's retired from Academia, there'll be that much more time to work on her own projects and interests exclusively in future!

I hope you enjoy browsing through the various pieces we've included. The site includes a pictorial breakdown of Michele's publications (both print and online) which may come as quite a surprise to some. She's really had an extraordinary influence on many, many aspects of New Zealand culture over the past three or four decades.

There's certainly space for a more complete listing of her articles and shorter pieces, but I leave that for someone else in the future. This project was intended from the start to be more personal and less academic in focus, and hopefully that will make it more accessible to poetry-lovers everywhere.

Michele Leggott: Mezzaluna: Selected Poems (2020)

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Magister Ludi: Hermann Hesse

Nobel Prize Archive: Hermann Hesse (1946)

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1946 was awarded to Hermann Hesse "for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style."

It's quite easy to forget that sometimes.

Hermann Hesse: The Journey to the East (1932)

Garish paperback copies of Hermann Hesse's books are the discarded backdrop to so many people's memories of their brief spell in the counterculture that the anti-myth has grown up that he was just another peddler of facile half-truths like the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or (for that matter) another fallen idol, Aldous Huxley.

Aldous Huxley: The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell (1954 / 1956)

It was mostly the shorter, easier books which got read, however: Siddhartha, The Journey to the East - seldom the longer, more ponderously Germanic ones such as Narziss and Goldmund or The Glass Bead Game.

It's important to note, though, that there was a time, not so long ago, when Hesse was ranked by many (including myself) as one of the three greatest twentieth-century novelists writing in German - along with his fellow Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann and the incomparable Franz Kafka.

Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)

Did we all get it wrong? Was The Glass Bead Game never really on a level with The Trial or Buddenbrooks - let alone that more recent candidate for pole position, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities?

It's interesting to look back at the assessment of Hesse's work made by the Nobel Prize committee in that fateful year of 1946 to get some idea of just what they saw in him then, with the rubble of Hitler's Festung Europa lying all around them:
When at the beginning [of the First World War] he wanted to speak some words of peace and contemplation to his agitated colleagues and in his pamphlet used Beethoven’s motto, «O Freunde, nicht diese Töne» [Oh friends, not these tones], he aroused a storm of protest. He was savagely attacked by the German press and was apparently deeply shocked by this experience. He took it as evidence that the entire civilization of Europe in which he had so long believed was sick and decaying. Redemption had to come from beyond the accepted norms, perhaps from the light of the East, perhaps from the core hidden in anarchic theories of the resolution of good and evil in a higher unity. Sick and doubt-ridden, he sought a cure in the psychoanalysis of Freud, eagerly preached and practised at that time, which left lasting traces in Hesse’s increasingly bold books of this period.

Hermann Hesse [as Emil Sinclair]: Demian (1919)

Hesse had started his career with vaguely rebellious books about the constraints of conventional culture on the individual: books such as Unterm Rad (1905) [translated into English as 'The Prodigy', though the German actually means 'Under the Wheel'], which depicts the gradual breaking of the spirit of a gifted boy by schoolmasters and other enemies of originality.

Demian was a new departure for him, however - witness the fact that he published it under a pseudonym. It's the kind of book one could imagine Aleister Crowley writing if he'd had any real talent for fiction. Its sympathy with Occultism and a radical break with the 'natural order' which had left Europe burdened with more than ten million dead seem very appropriate to the year it was published, 1919.

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf (1927)

This personal crisis found its magnificent expression in the fantastical novel Der Steppenwolf (1927), an inspired account of the split in human nature, the tension between desire and reason in an individual who is outside the social and moral notions of everyday life. In this bizarre fable of a man without a home, hunted like a wolf, plagued by neuroses, Hesse created an incomparable and explosive book, dangerous and fateful perhaps, but at the same time liberating by its mixture of sardonic humour and poetry in the treatment of the theme ...
Certainly this account of Steppenwolf as an expression of post-war malaise makes a lot of sense. Hesse's dabbling with Freudianism and Eastern philosophies is also seen here as more of a necessary response to these paroxysms of a dying civilisation than a narrowly personal exploration of the self.

Hesse's Swedish panegyrists also make the important point that a novel such as Steppenwolf, which seemed so bizarre and trippy to readers in the 1960s, was really very much in the Middle-European Fantastic tradition:
Despite the prominence of modern problems Hesse ... preserves a continuity with the best German traditions; the writer whom this extremely suggestive story recalls most is E. T. A. Hoffmann, the master of the Elixiere des Teufels.

E. T. A. Hoffmann: Die Elixiere des Teufels / Klein Zaches (1815)

I'll refer you to my earlier blogpost on Hoffmann to give you some idea of what they had in mind.

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha (1922)

Hesse’s maternal grandfather was the famous Indologist Gundert. Thus even in his childhood the writer felt drawn to Indian wisdom. When as a mature man he travelled to the country of his desire he did not, indeed, solve the riddle of life; but the influence of Buddhism soon entered his thought, an influence by no means restricted to Siddhartha (1922) the beautiful story of a young Brahman’s search for the meaning of life on earth.
The fact that this novel constituted many people's introduction to the entire field of Eastern thought means that it's bound to show signs of age after more than a century. It's still a very readable book, though, and while it could be accused of superficiality, it's hard to think of any other which remains so charming and accessible while having such evident designs on the reader.

The Nobel committee, too, clearly had certain reservations about this syncretist aspect of Hesse's more philosophical writings, but they conclude by giving him the benefit of the doubt:
Hesse’s work combines so many influences from Buddha and St. Francis to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that one might suspect that he is primarily an eclectic experimenter with different philosophies. But this opinion would be quite wrong. His sincerity and his seriousness are the foundations of his work and remain in control even in his treatment of the most extravagant subjects.

Hermann Hesse: Das Glasperlenspiel (1943)

In Hesse’s more recent work the vast novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943) [The Glass Bead Game] occupies a special position. It is a fantasy about a mysterious intellectual order, on the same heroic and ascetic level as that of the Jesuits, based on the exercise of meditation as a kind of therapy. ... Hesse’s attitude is ambiguous. In a period of collapse it is a precious task to preserve the cultural tradition. But civilization cannot be permanently kept alive by turning it into a cult for the few. If it is possible to reduce the variety of knowledge to an abstract system of formulas, we have on the one hand proof that civilization rests on an organic system; on the other, this high knowledge cannot be considered permanent. It is as fragile and destructible as the glass pearls themselves, and the child that finds the glittering pearls in the rubble no longer knows their meaning.

Hermann Hesse: Magister Ludi (1949)

I suppose, in the end, that's what it comes down to: your opinion of the above novel - whether translated as Magister Ludi [Master of the Game] by Mervyn Savill in 1949, or as The Glass Bead Game by Richard and Clara Winson in 1969.

Does Hesse's book really pose an eternal problem: the human dichotomy between (on the one hand) the ascetic and scholarly, with its risk of dryness and pedantry, and (on the other) the instinctive and emotional, with its risk of Dionysian excess? All that can be found already in Nietzsche, who makes a brief appearance in the text as the protagonist Joseph Knecht's - Josef K., anyone? - somewhat unstable friend Fritz Tegularius.

Others of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries to be found in its pages include Thomas Mann himself (as "Thomas van der Trave", Joseph Knecht's predecessor as Magister Ludi), Swiss Historian Jakob Burckhardt (as the Benedictine monk "Father Jacobus"), and Heinrich Perrot, the owner of a machine shop where Hesse worked after dropping out of school (as the Glass Bead Game's inventor "Bastian Perrot").

Does The Glass Bead Game make the most sense, then, if one sees it as a post-war Dystopia posing as a distant Utopia? If so, the author has stated his own position far less clearly than Huxley and Orwell, his near-contemporaries, in their far darker fables Brave New World and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. But maybe that makes it even more of a book for our own time? I fear that the jury's still out on that one.

Certainly, my understanding of the novel has changed over the years. There was a time when nothing seemed more paradisal to me than Hesse's description of Castalia. Now, having done quite a bit more living in the meantime, Knecht's motivation for making a break from the formalism of the game makes much better sense to me.

It's a long novel, and a densely layered one - but then the same is true of both The Magic Mountain and The Castle. I remain to be convinced that it shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath with them. Naturally all three writers must continue to have their own distinct constituencies, mind you.

Hermann Hesse: Poems, trans. James Wright (1970)

If Hesse’s reputation as a prose writer varies, there has never been any doubt about his stature as a poet. Since the death of Rilke and George he has been the foremost German poet of our time. He combines exquisite purity of style with moving emotional warmth, and his musical form is unsurpassed in our time. He continues the tradition of Goethe, Eichendorf, and Mörike and renews its poetic magic by a colour peculiar to himself ...

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

I suppose that it comes as news to most of us that Hesse was ever thought of as "the foremost German poet of our time" - a fitting successor to Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke! But then, the first appearance of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge" [Death Fugue] was still two years off in 1946 ...

Luckily, Richard Strauss's breathtaking Four Last Songs (1950) gives us some idea of the inspiration he found in Hesse's poetry.
Strauss had come across the poem "Im Abendrot" by Joseph von Eichendorff, which he felt had a special meaning for him. He set its text to music in May 1948. Strauss had also recently been given a copy of the complete poems of Hermann Hesse and was strongly inspired by them. He set three of them – "Frühling", "September", and "Beim Schlafengehen" – for soprano and orchestra, and contemplated setting two more, "Nacht" and "Höhe des Sommers", in the same manner ... The overall title Four Last Songs was provided by Strauss's friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes, when he published all four songs as a single unit in 1950, and in the order that most performances now follow: "Frühling", "September", "Beim Schlafengehen", "Im Abendrot".

Richard Strauss: Vier letze Lieder (1950)

If you've never listened to it, you really should. Here's a link to Jessye Norman's epic performance of the entire work on YouTube.

Steppenwolf (c.1967-72)

So, on the one hand we have Steppenwolf the rock band, most famous for their 1968 anthem "Born to be Wild," one of two songs (the other was "The Pusher") featured on the soundtrack of the classic counterculture movie Easy Rider (1969).

On the other hand, we have the stirring strains of "2001: A Space Odyssey" Strauss's settings of some of Hermann Hesse's gentler lyrics.

I think I'll have to leave the implications of comics maestro Jack Kirby's choice of the name "Steppenwolf" for one of the principal villains on his dark planet of Apokolips - seen most recently in the DC movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) - to a more informed commentator, however ...

Is any real reconciliation possible between these two approaches to the legacy of Hermann Hesse? Does he have a lasting legacy, in fact? I think so, yes. He may never approach the heights of respectability implied by that Nobel Prize eulogy again, but that's probably a good thing. If he stood for anything, he stood for rebellion against constituted authority, and the consequent need for a personal quest for new ethical standards to live by.

Some of the directions he himself went in may seem a little dated now, but the astonishing thing is how many of them don't. His rebellious alternatives have become, for many, now - in the age of climate change and the catastrophic failure of so many of our comfortable certitudes - the accepted middle of the road.

Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty: Hermann Hesse (2018)

    Hermann Karl Hesse (1877-1962)


  1. Peter Camenzind. ['Peter Camenzind', 1904]. Trans. W. J. Strachan. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  2. The Prodigy. ['Unterm Rad', 1905]. Trans. W. J. Strachan. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  3. Gertrude. ['Gertrud'. 1910]. Trans. Hilda Rosner. 1969. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.
  4. Rosshalde. ['Roßhalde', 1914]. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1970. London: Picador, 1973.
  5. Knulp: Three Tales from the Life of Knulp. ['Knulp', 1915]. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1971. London: Picador, 1974.
  6. [as Emil Sinclair] Demian. ['Demian', 1919]. Trans. W. J. Strachan. 1960. Frogmore, St Albans: Panther Books, 1975.
  7. Klingsor’s Last Summer. ['Klingsors letzter Sommer', 1920]. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1970. London: Picador, 1973.
  8. Siddhartha. ['Siddhartha', 1922]. Trans. Hilda Rosner. 1954. London: Picador, 1976.
  9. Der Steppenwolf: Erzählung. 1927. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1974.
    • Steppenwolf. ['Der Steppenwolf', 1927. Trans. Basil Creighton. 1929. Rev. Walter Sorell. 1963. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  10. Narziss and Goldmund. ['Narziß und Goldmund', 1930. Trans. Geoffrey Dunlop. 1959. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  11. The Journey to the East. ['Die Morgenlandfahrt', 1932. Trans. Hilda Rosner. 1956. Introduction by Timothy Leary. 1966. Frogmore, St Albans: Panther Books, 1973.
  12. The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). ['Das Glasperlenspiel (Magister Ludi)', 1943. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1969. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.
    • The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). ['Das Glasperlenspiel (Magister Ludi)', 1943. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1960. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  13. Novellas and Short Stories:

  14. Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht (1899)
  15. Freunde (1908)
  16. In the Old Sun (1914)
  17. Schön ist die Jugend (1916)
  18. Strange News from Another Star and Other Stories. ['Märchen', 1919. Trans. Denver Lindley. 1972. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
  19. Klein und Wagner (1919)
  20. Stories of Five Decades. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Ralph Manheim & Denver Lindley. 1954 & 72. St Albans, Herts: Triad Panther, 1976.
  21. Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Rita Lesser. 1982. Triad Panther. London: Granada, 1984.
  22. The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse. Trans. Jack Zipes. Woodcut Illustrations by David Frampton. A Bantam Book. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1995.

  23. Non-Fiction:

  24. Besuch aus Indien (1913)
  25. Blick ins Chaos (1920)
  26. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. 1920. Trans. James Wright. 1972. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
  27. If the War Goes On … Reflections on War and Politics. 1946. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1971. London: Picador, 1974.
  28. Reflections. Ed. Volker Michels. 1971. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1974. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad Panther, 1979.
  29. Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Denver Lindley. 1971-72. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
  30. My Belief: Essays on Life and Art. 1973. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Denver Lindley & Ralph Manheim. 1974. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad Panther, 1978.

  31. Poetry:

  32. Hermann Lauscher [poetry and prose] (1900)
  33. Poems: 1899-1921. 1953. Trans. James Wright. 1970. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978.
  34. Crisis: Pages from a Diary (1975)
  35. Hours in the Garden and Other Poems. Trans. Rika Lesser. 1979. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.

  36. Letters:

  37. Carlsson, Anni & Volker Michels, ed. The Hesse-Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, 1910-1955. 1968. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski. 1975. London: Peter Owen, 1976.

  38. Secondary:

  39. Freeman, Ralph. Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis. A Biography. 1978. An Abacus Book. London: Sphere Books, 1981.
  40. Michels, Volker, ed. Hermann Hesse: A Pictorial Biography. 1973. Trans. Theodore & Yetta Ziolkowski and Denver Lindley. 1975. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad Panther, 1979.

Jack Zipes, trans: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

... not “Working from Home,” but “At home, during a crisis, trying to work” ...

- Tere McGonagle-Daly
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Students and Global Engagement
Chair of Massey University's Crisis Management Team (CMT)