From one extreme to the other – the long, long work that was Anna Karenina, an abortive attempt at a ‘lost’ Kerouac book, and now I’m reading a very short volume by Herman Hesse! For some reason, I keep finding myself drawn back to authors I read extensively in my twenties, many of whom were European ones – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Kubin, Calvino, Junger, Hamsun and of course Hesse. I have a big block of original volumes from that time still on my shelf, but this is one I never tracked down – an earlier work called “Knulp”.

Hesse was it seems a very trendy author to read in the latter part of the 20th century. His books are quite philosophical and he embraced Eastern religions in an era where many were questioning the rapidly accelerating, modern way of life. I’m keen to revisit his work, and I’ve picked up a new translation of “Steppenwolf”, one of his best known works, to see how it stands up to a 21st century reading! But for the meantime, some thoughts on “Knulp”.

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The original German subtitle for this novella was “Three Stories from the life of Knulp” which gives a much more accurate idea of what the reader is going to encounter. In the first part, titled “Early Spring”, we meet our hero, the title character, although he is actually something of an anti-hero. Knulp is a vagabond wanderer, a young man with a knowledge of all trades and walks of life, but no actual experience of hard work, as is shown by the references to his fine hands. He travels around from town to town, lodging and taking food from friends and acquaintances where he finds them, with no cares and bringing a lightness which lifts others. Here, he is a little unwell and drops in to stay with Rothfuss, an old friend, and his new young wife; the latter is obviously very taken with Knulp and makes her feelings quite clear. Knulp, meanwhile, befriends a homesick maid living nearby and brings some happiness into her existence, before moving on to escape from the clutches of Mrs. Rothfuss. He debates whether to reveal to his friend what his wife is really like, but decides against it. Rothfuss sums Knulp’s character up well:

“A man who worked hard and got ahead was better off in many ways, but he could never have such delicately graceful hands or walk with so light and jaunty a step. No, Knulp was right in going what his nature demanded and what few others could do, in speaking to strangers like a child and winning their hearts, in saying pleasant things to ladies of all ages, and making Sundays out of weekdays. You could only take him as he was, and when he needed a roof over his head, it was pleasant and an honour to give him one; indeed, you almost wanted to thank him, for he brought lightness and gaiety into the house.”

The second story, “My Recollection of Knulp”, is narrated by a one-time fellow wanderer of Knulp’s (possibly meant to be Hesse himself?), remembering a time when the latter was still alive. They are roaming without a care in the world, but despite their apparent camaraderie, it becomes clear that Knulp is destined to travel a lone path – when his friend will not fall in with his wishes for rest, but simply wants to drink beer, Knulp departs in the night to continue his travels, leaving his friend feeling guilty.

“I still had no experience of the sorrow that is part and parcel of every human relationship, nor had I learned that no matter how close two human beings may be, there is always a gulf between them which only love can bridge, and that only from hour to hour.”

The final story, “The End”, finds Knulp in poor healthy, suffering from consumption and obviously his situation is becoming terminal. He is drawn to his old home where he grew up and whilst travelling back their encounters one of his best friends from school, Machold, who is now a doctor. Knulp’s friend immediately recognises his condition and takes him in, giving him shelter and clothing, and treating him as best he can. Machold wants to send Knulp to a hospital in his hometown to see out his final days in comfort, but our hero is having none of that, and gives his escort the slip, taking off into the surrounding area. He wants to spend his remaining time revisiting his past, and reckoning his life.

“This bit of the world belonged to him, he had known every inch of it and loved it; every bush and every slope had held meaning for him, had had its tales to tell; every rain or snowfall has spoken to him; the air and earth had lived in response to his dreams and desires.”

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It’s so long since I read any Hesse that I’d forgotten how simple and beautiful his language is. The wanderer is a recurring theme in his work and although this is an earlier, less-known book, it still tackles big themes: human relationships, the point of existence, whether we are born with a particular kind of temperament or whether events shape us. In the last section, particularly, we find out much more about the wanderer; Knulp reveals events from his childhood which made him take up his nomadic life and it is clear that they still haunt him. He questions whether he should have lived differently, but concludes that he could not have, although he is still unsure whether he has made any contribution to humanity. As he sees out his last moments in a snowstorm, he has a reckoning with God and is reassured that he had a purpose, in a very moving sequence.

Apparently, this was one of Hesse’s most popular early books, and I can see why. It’s lyrical and evocative, easy to read and very thought-provoking. I’m glad I revisited Hesse and I intend to (re)read more of his work soon!