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“The modern spirit has become a more and more calculating one” #GeorgSimmel @pushkinpress #willstone

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The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel
Edited, translated and introduced by Will Stone

After the mad reading and posting for the #1944Club I hit the usual unfocused slump that usually follows an intense period of reading. I have *loads* of books I could choose to open next, but have been hit by raging indecision. After the lovely escapism of “Eve in Egypt”, something slim and non-fiction seemed the best option – so I went for this lovely little review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, which turned out to be anything but slight!

“The Art of the City” is a new volume in the Pushkin Collection range – lovely little books with gorgeous covers and French flaps – and the author, Georg Simmel is a new name to me. As the introduction by translator Will Stone reveals, Simmel (1858-1918) was an influential German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. This volume contains four seminal essays by Simmel; three discuss the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, all long considered aesthetic architectural gems, with the final one, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” taking a very timely and modern look at the effect of city living on the human psyche. It’s a slim yet intellectually complex book and one which really sets you thinking about the way cities have grown up and how we live in them nowadays, as well as what they do to us.

In his introduction, Stone rightly identifies Simmel as an early flaneur, a kind of proto-psychogeographer, who looked at these three ancient cities as works of art as well as places to live in, ruminating on the effects modernity will have on them as well as considering how some kind of equilibrium can be achieved between the human spirit, nature and art.

Of Rome, Simmel comments, “Here, countless generations have created and built structures side by side, one on top another, each having no concern for or comprehension of what went before, responding only to the demands of the hour and the mood of the epoch.” That could be said of many a city, of course, but fortuitously for Rome the result is architectural beauty, a balance between landscape and buildings old or new which seems rare. The disparate elements are somehow harmonious and the city becomes a sum of its parts. Florence has a similar effect on Simmel:

Poppies and brook, shuttered villas like locked-up secrets, children at play, blueness and clouds of the heavens – all this can be found everywhere in the world and everywhere is beautiful, but here it harbours a spiritual and aesthetic element, a quite alternative peripheral view, for nothing enchants by its beauty alone, but rather participates in an overarching absolute beauty.

However, Simmel appears to find Venice‘s falseness displeasing; its facade is something I’ve heard others railing against, and the sham nature of the place is not to his liking. That city is, of course, an artificial construct (in much the same way that St. Petersburg is, I suppose) and although all cities are *built* the process is often random, unplanned and develops over many decades or even centuries, responding to the needs of the people using it. Building a conurbation from scratch, in a planned, controlled way, seems to me a very modern conceit (look, for example, at the Garden City movement of the 20th century) and what is manufactured and looks good on paper does not always end up being something in which a human being can live happily.

The bottom line is that in the life of the metropolis the struggle with nature for the necessary food of life has turned into a conflict between human beings, and the fiercely contested reward is here bestowed not by nature but by man. Here flows not only the previously cited source of specialization, but the deeper one, where the seller must arouse in the person to whom he wishes to sell ever more novel and specific requirements.

But I digress a little. The icing on the cake in this book is the final essay; an inspiring piece of work, which considers the dehumanising effects of the modern metropolis, it apparently influenced thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Rilke (I’d also be interested to know if Marshall Berman ever read it). It’s a thoughtful, bracing and provocative piece that discusses the vast differences between the experience of living in rural areas or urban areas; and rather chillingly Simmel traces the alienation of the modern city as stemming from the gulf between producers and consumers, the dominance of the money principle and the isolation of human beings from each other.

via Wikimedia Commons

The pace of life even at the time of the essay (1903) is perceived as having a negative effect, so goodness know what Simmel would make of the modern world. The vast number of stimuli thrown at human beings on a daily basis is constantly increasing, and it could be argued that we haven’t evolved at a pace to keep up with the changes around us – which could be the source of some of our modern problems.

Money, with its colourlessness and supreme indifference, becomes the universal denominator of all values, a most terrifying leveller, hollowing out the core of things, their peculiarities, their intrinsic value, their incomparability. All swim at the same specific weight in the continuously moving flow of money, all rest on the same level and differ only through their monetary value.

As you can see by my constantly rambling off at tangents, this book really *does* punch above its weight and provides some profound insights into the difficulties of urban living. I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of Simmel before, and wondering why his work wasn’t more read and discussed nowadays – but of course that might be a lack of English versions… Which leads me on to naming and thanking the translator! 🙂

I’ve reviewed works rendered by Will Stone (who is also a poet and essayist) before on the Ramblings; I thought very highly of his defence of Stefan Zweig and also his translation of “Rilke in Paris” which he produced so wonderfully for the Hesperus Press edition, even providing photos for the book. Once again, he’s done the essays here justice with an erudite foreword exploring Simmel’s life and work; and although as a monolinguist I can’t really comment on the nitty-gritty of the translation, it does read beautifully! If you’re at all interested in considering how architecture and urban living impact on humans, or just in reading some really stimulating essays, I recommend this book highly – Simmel’s work is most definitely worth exploring.

*****

After finishing Simmel’s essays, which linger beautifully in the mind, I remembered that

a. they were translated from German
b. it’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy Siddal and Caroline at Beauty in a Sleeping Cat!

I always try to take part in German Lit Month, and so even though these essay are probably very off topic (as I believe the ladies have a particular focus this month), I’m still going to claim this post for the month’s reading!

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An unexpected tale from Stefan Zweig

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german-literature-month-vi

Back in the summer of 2015 I was fortunate to stumble on a pair of lovely Pushkin Collection volumes of Stefan Zweig stories – “The Governess and other stories” and “Wondrak and other stories”. I read a story from each and then, typically for me, popped them on a shelf to read later. Roll on nearly 18 months, and I came across them whilst I was reshuffling a few books, and thought that I should at least give Zweig some reading time during German Literature Month!I recalled flipping through “The Governess…”, and the first story in that volume (“Did He Do It?”) is a really intriguing and unexpected one for a tale from Zweig; so I thought I would re-read it and see what I thought second time round.

did-he-do-it

Unusually, the story is set in England, near Bath to be precise, and it’s narrated by a lady called Betsy. She opens her tale with the bald statement that she’s sure that “he” is the murderer – who “he” is and who was killed is left to be revealed as the story progresses, but it’s a dramatic opening guaranteed to ensnare the reader from the very start!

Betsy and her husband have retired to a little cottage in the area, near a canal, and are enjoying their rest. Their tranquillity is ruffled a little by the arrival of some neighbours, the Limpseys, who build a love nest nearby. The Limpseys have been married for some years, and it’s clear from early on that it’s the husband John who dominates. An overenthusiastic man with no restraint, he throws himself into situations and relationships, exhausting those around him with his over-the-top zeal – it’s clear he has an abundance of energy which needs an outlet! His poor wife is overwhelmed and in many ways secretly happy when he’s away at work.

The couple are childless and Betsy makes the mistake of procuring a pet dog for them, given the name of Ponto. Needless to say, Limpsey throws himself into pet ownership, so much so that before long it’s the dog that rules the roost in the household and the neighbours are actually quite happy that he has an aversion to them. However, life for the Limpseys takes another odd turn, one which will have a dramatic effect on Ponto and then tragic results for his owners themselves. More than that I cannot say without risking ruining the story for you.

What could be a straightforward, whodunnit-ish type of tale is transformed here in the hands of a master storyteller. This is less of a mystery than a psychological study – of the relationships between man and animal, of the dangers of unchecked behaviour and of the consequences of extreme emotions. The portrait of Ponto’s temperament, changing from devotion to dominance through abandonment and then malevolence is impressive, and he becomes the central character of the story.

Zweig with Lotte and neice Eva in Bath - 1940

Zweig with Lotte and niece Eva in Bath – 1940

I love Stefan Zweig’s writing, and this was something of a departure – but a fascinating one! In a short work he can pack in so much and his narrative voice, as a retired Englishwoman, was entirely convincing (apparently Zweig did live near Bath for a while). “Did He Do It?” was further evidence of Zweig’s talent (if that was needed!) and I constantly find myself wondering why he was ignored for so many years. If you haven’t yet read Zweig, I highly recommend you do – you have so many treats in store!

(Post)#GermanLitMonth – A State of Mind

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The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider

Even though we’re comfortably into December, I’m going to claim this one for German Literature Month, as I did *read* it in November – I just ran out of reviewing time! And actually, bearing in mind its length, I’ll also claim it for #novellanov!

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the divide between East and West, as exemplified by the Berlin Wall, has an enduring fascination. So when I stumbled across mention of Peter Schneider’s “The Wall Jumper” I was very keen to track it down, as I do have something of a fascination with the GDR (which I think I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings!)

wall jumper

Schneider is an author I hadn’t heard of before, and from a cursory look online it seems as if this might be his best known work in English; certainly there are only a few other titles obviously available, and he’s not a writer I’ve seen discussed much. However, on the evidence of “The Wall Jumper” I’d certainly like to read more.

The book is narrated by an unnamed writer who may or not be Schneider himself, and is set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall. It’s populated by characters who live on both sides of the divide: there is Pommerer, the friend in the East the narrator visits and who spins legends of jumpers; Robert, an escapee to the West who tells tales from his bar stool; and there is Lena, the narrator’s past love whose reactions were conditioned by the East which left her temperamentally incapable of a relationship with a Westerner. Binding them together is the narrator, attempting to find the perfect tale of a wall jumper, as he flits back and forth across the Wall. And the tales themselves are fascinating: there are the three youngsters who regularly cross the Wall in its early days to watch Hollywood films; a man who feels compelled to jump back and forth for no good reason; and people with more sinister intent who end up paying the ultimate price. It’s a chilling reminder of just how recent the Cold War was, particularly when you notice that those in the West can visit the East and leave, but those from the East can only escape illegally or if their freedom is bought by the other side.

wall

But as he searches for the perfect story, it becomes clear that the wall jumper of the title is in fact the narrator himself; shuttling back and forth between East and West, collecting stories and legends of other jumpers and weaving them into his tale, he’s unable to resist his fascination with the city’s great divide.

Every story lacks something the next one has; but then the next story is missing something from the one before. Maybe the story I’m looking for doesn’t exist.

The story is dominated by the Wall, of course and the effect that it has had on those living around it. You would think that simply plonking an arbitrary divide through a city wouldn’t change the people on either side, but in fact it has. Those on the opposing sides of the wall have either chosen where to live according to their belief or mindset, or else have tailored their thought to where they live. Either way, their personality is set by the side of the wall which they inhabit and because of this they constantly misunderstand each other. The Wall is shown to be something that exists in the mind, perhaps more so than the physical

It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the wall we can see. Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us.

And what of the narrator? I felt that he vacillated, unable to decide exactly where his sympathies lay. Like the jumpers themselves, his narrative shifted constantly, from past to present, East to West and in many ways he seemed unsettled in both regions.

Schneider

“The Wall Jumper” was an absolutely fascinating read. In this short novel, Schneider crystallises and encapsulates the ideological divide that used to exist between East and West (and probably still does); and it has a powerful message about how different beliefs and mindsets can affect the world today. Essential reading!

The Lost World of the Viennese Cafe (#GermanLitMonth)

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Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler

Continuing with this month’s German theme, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of this book from the lovely Pushkin Press (for which many thanks!); I’ve been keen to read Schnitzler for a while and I’m sure I have at least one book by him lurking somewhere. However, “Late Fame” sounded fascinating: a lost work of a famous author which survived hidden away in his archive. The archive itself had an intriguing history; Schnitzler died in 1931, and his literary legacy was stored in his son’s house in Vienna. When the Nazis forcibly took control of Austria in 1938, it was likely that the work would be destroyed, as Schnitzler’s books had been amongst those burned by the Nazis earlier in the decade. Fortunately, due to intervention by the British Consulate, the seal of the British Government was placed on the door of the archive, and thereafter it made its way by a tortuous route to the Cambridge University Library where it stayed hidden all those years.

late fame

Wikipedia has Schnitzler listed as simply “an Austrian author and playwright. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the Viennese Modernism.” But it goes on to note that much of his work was considered controversial for its frank sexual content, and that his books were labelled as “Jewish filth” by Hitler (hence the burning, presumably). Nothing like this is present in “Late Fame”, however, which tells the story of one Eduard Saxberger, a lowly and ageing civil service clerk. Unmarried and fairly solitary, he’s in the habit of spending his evenings in a local restaurant with locals he’s known for years, conversing and playing cards. However, one evening he returns home to find a young man waiting for him by the name of Meier. Meier declares he is a poet, and has come to pay homage to the forgotten author of “Wanderings” – for indeed, in his youth, Saxberger had published such a volume of poems, a fact he hasn’t thought about for many years.

Meier tells the bemused Saxberger that he and his friends (grouping themselves under the name of ‘Enthusiasm’) are all huge fans of “Wanderings” and as typical misunderstood artists they empathise with his plight. Saxberger hadn’t actually realised he had a plight, but as he begins to mix with the young people, he realises he has been neglected for too long. The young artists begin to plan a performance, at which Saxberger will perform a new work and all will be showered in glory. However, things are not necessarily that straightforward: How will Saxberger be received by new generations of audiences? Is the work of the young poets really as incomprehensible as it seems to him? What will his old friends think of his new status as a famous poet? What do his new young friends *really* think of “Wanderings”? And most importantly of all, can Saxberger still write poetry?

Arthur_Schnitzler_website

“Late Fame” is quite fascinating; not only is it a devastating satire of the untalented artist, convinced he’s misunderstood by the world and that everyone else is a failure, but it also deals with the effect of false flattery on a simple nature. Saxberger *is* a simple man; used to spending his time with his restaurant friends, he’s seduced by the illusion of fame, convincing himself that his real life should have been as a famous poet and not an ordinary man. Fortunately, he’s grounded enough to recognise the illusion in time and step back into his own world, something that the younger people won’t be able to do, and Schnitzler lets him off lightly. As one of his friends sensibly points out, all young men of the time tried their hands at poetry, but once they outgrew this tendency they went on to live a normal life. However, the author has no mercy at all for the second-rate members of Enthusiasm and I can’t foresee much of a future for them in the creative world….

Apparently Schnitzler based many of the characters in the book on real people, a parody of a literary circle that met in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The characters are certainly wonderfully drawn, from the pompous Meier through the ageing and fading actress Fräulein Gasteiner to timid young Winder (who I felt was the most sincere of the group). “Late Fame” manages to be funny and poignant at the same time, satirizing brilliantly the pretensions of would-be literati. It’s published in a beautiful little hardback edition by the wonderful Pushkin Press who once again deserve awards for bringing us this newly translated English version. If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a bit of a poet, it might be worth reading this book first…. 🙂

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – details of the book can be found on their website here, and they also publish a number of other titles by Schnitzler which will definitely be worth exploring!)

A Lost Youth

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The Sad Geraniums by Wolfgang Borchert
Translated by Keith Hamnett

Ah, the joys of charity stores and random finds! 🙂 I was browsing recently in the Oxfam and came across this pretty little volume, a Calder and Boyars book from 1974. I’d never heard of the author before, but he was German (and so fitted in with German Literature Month), and the blurb implied he had a short and tragic life and had a cult following. So I took a gamble, and I’m really glad I did.

sad geraniums

First, a little bit about Borchert from Wikipedia: Wolfgang Borchert (20 May 1921 – 20 November 1947) was a German author and playwright whose work was affected by his experience of dictatorship and his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. His work is among the best examples of the TrĂĽmmerliteratur movement in post-World War II Germany. His most famous work is the drama “The Man Outside”, which he wrote in the first days after World War II. In his works he never makes compromises in questions of humanity and humanism. He is one of the most popular authors of the German postwar period, also today often read in German schools. Fascinating, no?

“The Sad Geraniums” is a slim collection of short works, some no more than a couple of pages long. I’ve seen Borchert described as a master of the art of compression, and that’s certainly evident here – these pieces, though brief, manage to convey an incredible amount. You could almost call them sketches rather than stories, but each captures a particular moment or event and crystallises it. So a pair of lovers shelter in a doorway and are glad it’s rained as they have an excuse to be late; a prospective suicide is distracted by the prospect of chopping wood; a potential seducer is repelled by a woman’s asymmetrical nostrils; and so on. Each small vignette is intense and involving and although we have just a short time to get to know the characters, somehow we feel as if we really do.

In the end only the wind will remain. When everything else is gone, tears, hunger, machines and music, then there will only be the wind left. He will outlive everything, stone and street, even immortal love. And he will sing comfortingly in the sparse shrubs which crown our snow-clad graves. And on summer evening he will court the sweet flowers and playfully dance with them – today, tomorrow, always.

borchert

The writing is quite beautiful, with some of the works being almost prose poems, lovely pieces of description. But still Borchert manages to convey something – an emotion, the sense of a story, a fragment that makes you look at life very differently. The language is so lovely that I make no apology for quoting more:

Is there any music sweeter than the sound of rain at night? Is there anywhere anything to subtle and so matter of fact, so secretive and so talkative as rain in the night? Are our ears so indifferent that we only react to streetcar bells, cannon blasts or symphony concerts? Do we no longer hear the symphonies of the thousand droplets that prattle and rattle on the pavement by night, that whisper lustfully against windows and roof-tiles, that softly strum and drum fairy tales on the leaves under which the millions of flies have crawled, that drop and plot onto our shoulders through our thin summer clothes or gurgle with tiny gong beats into the stream? Do we no longer hear anything but our own loud ballyhoo?

Information on Borchert and his work is sketchy, but fortunately this book contains a little sketch of his life and tells of how these 18 pieces were discovered amongst his papers after his death. He seems to me to be exactly the kind of author who could and should be picked up by a publisher like Pushkin Press; and on the strength of this short collection I would be very, very keen to read more of his work. Highly recommended!

The Seven Years Enchantment

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The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

“The Magic Mountain” was one of the books I considered reading for The 1924 Club but didn’t for a couple of reasons: firstly, I didn’t own a copy, and secondly, it’s over 700 pages long… However both those issues were resolved – I was lucky enough to win a copy of “The Magic Mountain” from lovely Lizzy’s Giveaway, and I decided to embark upon it not for The 1924 Club but for German Literature Month, starting during half-term when I would have more time to read. And a confession: I did own an old Penguin copy once and tried to start it but stalled, so I was hoping I would do better this time.

magic mountain

Mann, is of course, one of the German greats; as Wikipedia tells us, he was “a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. His highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. His analysis and critique of the European and German soul used modernized German and Biblical stories, as well as the ideas of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Mann was a member of the Hanseatic Mann family and portrayed his family and class in his first novel, Buddenbrooks. His older brother was the radical writer Heinrich Mann and three of his six children, Erika Mann, Klaus Mann and Golo Mann, also became important German writers. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann fled to Switzerland. When World War II broke out in 1939, he moved to the United States, returning to Switzerland in 1952. Thomas Mann is one of the best-known exponents of the so-called Exilliteratur, literature written in German by those who opposed or fled the Hitler regime.” That’s quite a bio…

“The Magic Mountain” tells the story of Hans Castorp, a young German orphan, living pre-WW1. Brought up in the main by his grandfather, who is now also dead, he has a network of rather formal relations and as a trained engineer, has his life and career planned out. Before starting work in shipbuilding, he journeys up the mountains to the Berghof sanitorium in Davos, a Swiss Alpine location; here he is to spend three weeks visiting his cousin Joachim, who is being treated for consumption. As the introduction reminds is, tuberculosis was a killer in these pre-antibiotic days, and the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains was thought to be beneficial (I was reminded of Katherine Mansfield’s constant searches for health). Joachim is a rigid young man, desperate to be cured so he can go off and join the army. The cousins are attached but reserved, addressing each other formally and maintaining the social structure of the world down below.

Initially, Hans is amused by the routines of the Berghof and the cures the inmates take; however, he’s having trouble becoming acclimatised, at one point having a dramatic nosebleed; and when he appears to catch cold he asks the doctors to check him over. It transpires that he has a “moist spot” himself and it’s suggested that he stays up at the sanitorium for a few months to be cured himself. However, what starts as three weeks, then a few months, finally ends up being a seven-year stay and during that time Hans goes through many changes. Because of the cosmopolitan collection of inmates, his views are subject to much change; his moral standards relax; he falls in love; and through meeting some powerfully opinionated thinkers, he receives an intellectual education he would never have had down in the ‘flat-land’.

Schatzalp_Davos

The Sanitorium

TMM is a massive book and to go into any more specific plot description would be pointless. It’s a novel of ideas; of cultures clashing and changing; and also one of enchantment. The seven-year period which Hans spends away from normal life is almost like a fairy-tale, in which the characters make their own reality, and the reader does wonder if they’ve all been bewitched. Hans ascends the mountain as if entering another realm; which in a sense he is, as the difference between the land of the living down below and the land of the dying up high is pronounced. There is a real ambiguity about the illness of the patients, and particularly with Hans we are never quite sure if he is really ill, or if it’s just the effects of the altitude. There’s a slight hint that the doctor, Hofrat, is a bit of a charlatan, and the treatments do seem to go on and on. This has a particularly striking effect on Joachim who, in his desperation to join up with the army, defies the doctors and flees from the enchanted region, with disastrous results.

Indeed, the Berghof seems to almost have a hypnotic effect on visitors which is demonstrated when Hans first arrives and becomes rather insidiously assimilated into the place’s way of life, and also when his Uncle James visits. In fact, it’s not until we see Hans encounter his uncle from the ‘flat-land’ down below, come up on a recce to find out exactly why his nephew is lingering in the mountains, that we really appreciate how much the former has changed. From a stiff, slightly upright bourgeois, with a career all mapped out for him, he’s grown into a pseudo philosopher, ready to explore ideas and grab what life can offer him away from the constraints of normal society. At several points, Mann describes what Hans has found in the higher regions as freedom, and it certainly seems to be a liberation of sorts, with the falling away of the rigid norms of the pre-WW1 society – but to be replaced with what? The inmates dabble in all sort of crazes, from playing patience through stamp collecting and even to holding rather disturbing seances.

Patients taking a cure

Patients taking a cure

There’s also a wonderful satirical element in the writing, as Mann wryly observes the various residents of the sanitorium; from the ‘bad Russian’ table; through Frau Stohr who always manages to say the wrong thing, or something totally inappropriate; Frau Chauchat, the beautiful Russian woman with whom Hans falls in love; the complex doctor Hofrat who’s also an amateur painter; Settembrini, an Italian patient, and Naphta, who lives in the nearby village. The book is full of wonderful, memorable characters, all of whom have some effect on Hans. In fact, Hans Castorp goes up the mountain as no more than a boy; rigid, naive and tradition bound. He comes down it a man, with a wealth of experience; because up in the heights, in that rarefied air, he’s experienced all that life has to offer.

Interestingly, I’ve heard TMM referred to as one of a number of “novel-essays” and it could certainly be argued that the book has a didactic purpose; the long sections of intellectual discussion are a way for the author to sneak plenty of high ideals into the tale. The clash of ideas, nationalities and cultures is central to the book, and there are many ideas discussed here (some of which, I have to confess, lost me a little…). Intellectual reasoning and debate is represented by the Freemason, Settembrini and the Jesuit, Naphta, both of whom are involved in Hans’ emotional and spiritual development. Settembrini’s pontificating, and his constant mental battles with Naphta, dominate whole chapters of the book. It’s as if they represent the two polar opposites of belief in the society of the time and, as Hans remarks, are battling for his soul.

They forced everything to an issue, these two – as perhaps one must when one differed – and wrangled bitterly over extremes, whereas it seemed to him, Hans Castorp, as though somewhere between two intolerable positions, between bombastic humanism and analphabetic barbarism, must lie something which one might personally call the human. He did not express his thought, for fear of irritating one or the other of them; but, wrapped in his reserve, listened to one goading the other one…

However, there are so many strands running through the story: illness and death is naturally prominent; the passing of time and the perception of time, which is very different away from the flat-land; magic and enchantment, of course; and the importance of music. The sanitorium in the mountains is a rarefied atmosphere in more ways than one; not only is the altitude relevant to the consumption cure, but in the isolated world of the patients, where they almost regard themselves as superior to the rest of the world, any kind of behaviour is sanctioned. There is a sense that by being physically removed from, and high above, the flat-land, they have a better overall view and are in a better position to judge.

As the story builds to a climax, with hints from the outside world that all is not well (hints that Hans tries to ignore) there is a growing sense that something will break. The characters begin to behave in more eccentric and dramatic ways, and the rivalry between Settembrini and Naphta becomes much more extreme. When that climax is reached, modernity and reality come crashing into the book and the shock to Hans’ world (and also to the reader) is palpable. The enchanted hero on the magic mountain is only released from the spell by the thunder crash of war, and the contrast is devastating.

thomas-mann-1

As Mann explains in a fascinating afterword to the novel, the story grew out of a stay he had in a real-life sanitorium which he then used to build his book of ideas onto. He recommends that you read TMM twice, and it’s a view with which I would probably concur. It’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface of this vast, involving and complex novel in a review of this length; it raises so many thoughts, theories and questions that you could probably spend a good few years studying it. As it was, I came out TMM with a sense of having lived on the mountain with Hans, joined him in his triumphs and tragedies, and experienced a world in translation. I can see why Mann is regarded as one of the greats, and I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last of his novels I read.

#NovellaNov and German Literature Month – a double whammy!

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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Hilda Rosner

It’s not often that a book ticks two boxes, but this re-read of a book I haven’t returned to for about 30 years manages to! Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse was an author I read extensively in my younger years and I encountered his Knulp back in 2013. I was spurred on to return to “Siddhartha” by picking up a lovely Penguin Modern Classic on a swapping site (and Poppy has an interesting post about those here); so #NovellaNov and German Literature Month were the perfect prompts!

siddhartha

Hesse had a fascination with Indian and Buddhist philosophies, and in this book he draws on these to tell the story of Siddhartha; set in ancient India, the book tells of the young man’s odyssey through life, searching for spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha is born of a good family but shuns the path set out for him and instead sets off on his own. Joined by his best friend Govinda, he initially joins the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics who fast and beg for their living, renouncing all personal possessions.

He saw people living in a childish or animal-like way, which he both loved and despised. He saw them toiling, saw them suffer and grow grey about things that to him did not seem worth the price – for money, small pleasures and trivial honours. He saw them scold and hurt each other; he saw them lament over pains at which the Samana laughs, and suffer at deprivations which the Samana does not feel.

The travelling Samanas encounter Guatama, a great Buddha, and Govinda joins his order, but Siddhartha travels on. Crossing a river he experiences a transformation and moves on to take a new role, throwing himself into worldly, city life and spending time with the great courtesan Kamala. Becoming rich, this satisfies him for a while until he realises that this life is hollow. Returning to the river he considers self-destruction; but re-encountering the kind Ferryman who took him across initially, Siddhartha stays with him, embracing the simple spiritual life and listening to what the river has to tell him…

The world was beautiful when looked at in this way – without any seeking, so simple, so childlike. The moon and the stars were beautiful, the brook, the shore, the forest and rock, the goat and the golden beetle, the flower and butterfly were beautiful. It was beautiful and pleasant to go through the world like that, so childlike, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust.

Siddhartha’s tale of spiritual self-discovery is beautifully written and though it might not be obviously so, very relevant today. The sections where he’s living a life of luxury in the city, making money and becoming a man of stature, resonate with the modern world where gadgets and gizmos are all-consuming, but distract from moral worth and mental and philosophical exercise. Siddhartha tries all the extremes, from extreme poverty and extreme wealth until he finds a middle way, a simplicity that humans need but which is so often missing from their over-complicated existence.

hesse

Both of my recent readings of Hesse have revealed an author who cares about how we humans exist on this planet, and how we should spend our time during our short stay here. “Siddhartha” is an elegant discussion of the best way to live our lives and it’s made me really keen to revisit the rest of Hesse’s work.

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