Outside Man

The Wanderer and His Shadowby Gunnar Deckertranslated by Peter Lewis

Harvard, 791 pp., $39.95

When he was nearly 15, Hermann Hesse ran away from the Protestant boarding school where his parents had placed him. He was missing for 23 hours. His mother was worried, not that her son had killed himself but that he hadn’t. She was convinced that he had committed some dreadful deed—why else would he have absconded?

Gunnar Decker, in this newly translated massive biography of the Nobel Prize-winning German-Swiss writer, is rather stern about the Hesse parents’ inability to love their wayward son unconditionally. But Johannes and Marie Hesse, ex-missionaries and members of a Protestant movement known as “pietism” that prized individual devotion and a life lived in strict adherence to Christian doctrine, were befuddled by their oldest son’s steadfast determination to become a famous writer and to alienate them in any way possible, by smoking packs of cigarettes at their expense, reading Turgenev and Heine with a revolver next to him, and producing scores of derivative poems. I read Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel (1906), his melancholy novel about his school days, when I was an impressionable teenager, and though I never went to boarding school and wasn’t much of a rebel to begin with, Hesse’s raw concern for the damage that social norms and uncomprehending teachers will inflict on young people in search of their place in the world stuck with me for a long time.

The public appeal of his later novels to millions of fans—especially in the United States, a country he didn’t want to visit—would have surprised Hesse. However proudly he renounced his limited upbringing, in his work Hesse compulsively revisited the private battles of his adolescence. In the absence of the God of his parents, never a comforting presence anyway, Hesse made a deity of his own soul, finding heaven and hell within himself. He became the brilliant prophet of male inwardness. In novel after novel, from the early Peter Camenzind (1904) to his last great work, The Glass Bead Game (1943), his main characters are loners longing for true understanding and companionship, which they usually find only with other males.

Intimacies don’t last in Hesse’s world; ecstasy, if it is to be experienced at all, takes place in solitude.

His best-known novel, the crystalline Indian fantasy Siddhartha (1922), translated into over 30 languages, including some of the Indian ones spoken by his multilingual missionary grandfather, ends with a farewell kiss, reverently bestowed upon the now-enlightened Siddhartha by his childhood friend Govinda. A similar sanctification happens at the end of Hesse’s post-WWI bestseller Demian (1919), but here, as in Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), one of the two friends perishes. Hesse admired Kafka, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the cerebral Josef Knecht, the central figure in The Glass Bead Game, shares his first name as well as the initial of his last name with Kafka’s “Josef K.” But if Kafka’s The Trial ends with K.’s brutal execution, Hesse’s hero sacrifices himself so that a beloved pupil may live: Following the reckless young man into an icy mountain lake, Josef Knecht drowns.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

Intimacies don’t last in Hesse’s world; ecstasy, if it is to be experienced at all, takes place in solitude. A revelatory photograph in Decker’s volume shows Hesse in 1910, about 33 years old and already a fierce devotee of good wine, admiring a glass of red wine, raised high. By then, with his trademark round, wire-rimmed specs and sharp-featured, almost birdlike head topped by a receding layer of thin hair, Hesse already looked the way he would for the rest of his life, even as his skin grew more wrinkled and leathern under the sun he so loved: an odd mix of minister and village schoolmaster, a bookish boy scout more than a reckless adventurer.

Hesse’s protagonists, from the alcoholic Camenzind to the ascetic Knecht, were versions of himself, all involved in the same doomed struggle to reconcile spirit and matter, mind and body, love and desire. The biographical evidence, patiently accumulated by Decker, shows that such balance eluded Hesse in real life, too. Women puzzled him to no end. If they appear in his work at all, they are, like Kamala in Siddhartha or Maria in Steppenwolf (1927), the skilled purveyors of sexual favors, the sinful, fleeting fulfillment of teenage dreams. He married three times, though he never really knew what to do with his wives. The first, Maria Bernoulli, nine years older than her husband and the mother of his three boys, doesn’t smile in any of the pictures we have of her. Hesse left her when she showed signs of mental distress. “I never experienced any outpouring of spiritual or physical love from him,” complained Ruth Wenger, his unhappy second spouse, who preempted Hesse by filing for divorce herself.

Third time was the charm, however: Ninon Dolbin, the last in the series, stayed and eventually outlived her husband. A smitten fan before she became his lover, Ninon submitted willingly to Hesse’s household rules, which included not touching his stuff, writing notes rather than talking to him in person, and otherwise staying away from him unless needed. Outside his Swiss residence Hesse hung a sign that said, “No Visitors, Please.”

Holed up in his hermitage, Hesse, who became a Swiss citizen in 1923, tried hard not to become too entangled in political controversies. During World War I, he lambasted narrow-minded patriots while also scorning the pacifists, an awkward arm’s-length position he sought to replicate during the Third Reich, when he excoriated the Nazis but gladly took refuge in the hermetic world of the future conjured by his novel-in-progress, The Glass Bead Game. While such meandering didn’t exempt him from attack, Hesse suffered none of the brutal interruptions experienced by other writers and intellectuals who had to run for their lives.

For Gunnar Decker, a supremely empathetic biographer, the fact that Hesse wasn’t particularly pleasant to be with is a challenge rather than a problem. A master of biographical ventriloquism, he peppers his prose, congenially translated by Peter Lewis, with frequent exclamation marks meant to signal agreement with his crotchety subject and delivers pages of indirect interior monologue that would have done Flaubert or Zola proud, ranging from the basic (“What was he to do?”) to the philosophically elevated (“How could he ever turn this chaos into an order that he trusted?”). He also heaps extraordinary opprobrium on the wife Hesse most disliked, calling Ruth Wenger “pampered,” “superficiality incarnate,” and, in a particularly funny aside, possessed of a “gastronomic attitude” to life, which one suspects didn’t win her points with her rail-thin husband. And he skips lightly over the hurt Hesse must have caused the sons he left behind when he decided that he was more fit to be a wanderer than a paterfamilias. One of his sons, Martin, the only one to share his unreliable progenitor’s artistic ambitions, later succumbed to depression and took his own life.

Decker’s goal is to make us like Hesse, and the fact that he almost succeeds is a testament to his skill. Hesse had his own views about the genre. In The Glass Bead Game, framed as a biography of Josef Knecht, he openly mocked all biographers who seek to present their subject’s life as a glorious series of merits earned, obligations fulfilled, and successes achieved. Hesse was, I believe, well aware of his personal shortcomings, of the high price people around him had to pay so that he could continue to plumb his inner depths. There is, as far as I am concerned, no more heartbreaking passage in Hesse’s work than the moment when Siddhartha’s son, just recently united with the man who had once discarded his mother, turns the tables and, defiant and furious, rejects his holier-than-thou father. The pain Siddhartha feels after the boy is gone is like an open wound, like “a flame that would not go out on its own.”