Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

So, why choose this particular novel to revisit for the Hesse Reading Week? Well, it’s one of his best-known titles; it was particularly adopted by the youth culture of the 1960s; and it was one of the first I read. Additionally, I stumbled across a sparkly new translation, so I figured this was a good one to approach.

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“Steppenwolf” translates literally as a wolf from the Steppes, and the book tells the story one Harry Haller, a middle-aged German intellectual living between the two world wars who regards himself as the titular creature. The story is initially narrated by the nephew of Haller’s landlady, who relates his experience of knowing Haller, and introduces the next section of the book, writings left behind by Haller when he departed. This section, which opens with the declaration that it is for “Mad People Only”, relates Harry’s experiences leading up to his leaving from his own point of view. It’s a multi-layered narrative as it also contains within its pages a tract on the Steppenwolf which Harry receives from a pedlar at one point.

A stray wolf of the steppes, now part of the herd of city-dwellers – there could be no more compelling way of picturing him, his wary isolation, his wildness, his restlessness, his homelessness and his yearning for home.

As the story develops, we gradually find out more about Haller. An embittered man, he has left behind him the wreck of a personal life (mad wife, children etc) and, disillusioned with the world, seeks refuge in drink and an isolated life. Moving from city to city, taking up residence in boarding houses and hiding in books and music, he views normal life from the outside, despising it and longing for it at the same time. He regards himself as a divided self, with a civilised human side and a wolf-like side constantly in conflict.

However, the Steppenwolf tract he reads has a different view and castigates Harry for thinking of himself in such simple terms:

“….for there are absolutely no human beings, even primitive Negroes, even idiots, who are so pleasingly simple that their characters can be explained as the sum of only two or three principal elements. And to attempt to explain someone as subtly complex as Harry, of all people, by naively splitting him into wolf and human being is too childish for words. Harry is not made up of two characters, but of hundreds, of thousands. His life, like that of every human being, does not oscillate between two poles only – say between the body and the mind or spirit, between the saint and the profligate – but between thousands, between innumerable polar opposites.”*

And the tract has a point – humans are complex organisms and not so simply explained. However, Harry’s life is about to change; during his wanderings through he city, he constantly stumbles on hints that there are things behind the scenes, below the surface (the presentation of the Tract to him is one such event). And an encounter with a beautiful woman called Hermione in a bar leads Haller on a surreal journey of self-discovering involving love affairs, jazz, a Magic Theatre, murder and plenty of hallucinatory action.

“Steppenwolf” is a remarkable book, brimming with ideas on life and its meaning, the conflict between the civilised and wild side of humanity, and what it actually means to be a human being. Harry is portrayed as the typical intellectual – striving to reach the ‘immortals’, to overcome the everyday and the limitations of humankind, but dragged down all the time by his nature. He imagines himself superior to the bourgeois middle-classes, but he’s soon brought down to size by one of his dream encounters, when it’s pointed out to him that he’s tied to them and his rebellion is an impotent one as he cannot break free of his human chains. In his final encounter with the immortal Mozart (one of his heroes) he is encouraged to accept what he is and to recognise what is great even when filtered through human experience (in this case, classical music transmitted through a tinny transistor radio).

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As I mentioned above, “Steppenwolf” has often been interpreted as a counter-culture bible of sorts, but the book is much more than just an anti-establishment manual.There are multiple layers in the story and each narrator is potentially an unreliable one. There is mention at one point of Herman, Harry’s friend from youth, and later the elusive and seductive Hermione (who resembles Herman and has a feminised form of the name) takes to cross-dressing, at which point Haller falls in love with him/her. This could be a nod to the author, or simply another indicator that humans are even more multi-faceted than you might suspect.

An important element in the book is Haller’s basic contempt for humanity, and this is exemplified by his hatred of war (a sentiment Hesse shared). The effects of the First World War are still being felt, and yet Haller sees all around him preparations being made to build a force ready for a second conflict. Harry warns against it, stands against it and condemns it, but in remarkably prescient prose, knows that another world war is inevitable. This is chilling to read in a book published in 1927.

“Steppenwolf” is a powerful read; on one level it’s a touching and moving portrait of a man torn between two extremes, two different modes of living, and unable to settle for the bland middle ground through which most of us move. But it also throws up many questions about human nature, the way we choose to live, our need for violence and conflict and our search for the sublime.

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* I read “Steppenwolf” in a Penguin Modern Classics version, with a new translation by David Horrocks. The latter provides an excellent afterword which discusses the book and highlights the links between Hesse’s life at the time and text. However, as far as translations go, I compared the passage quoted above with the version from the one I originally read many moons ago. At the time, I kept a little notebook in which I jotted interesting quotes, and the passage was translated like this:

“For there is not a single human being, not even the primitive negro, not even the idiot, who is so conveniently simple that his being can be explained as the sum of two or three principal elements; and to explain so complex a man as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childless attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles.”

Looking at the two versions, for me the one I read originally has more resonance; this may simple be because it’s the one I read and the one I recall and felt strongly enough about to copy out; or it may be that I’m more in tune with the language of that time. Whichever it is, it’s made me decide that any more Hesse re-reads will be in the versions I read first time round…

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