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“…the east takes hold…” #HermannHesse #SingaporeDream

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Despite having more books on Mount TBR than I care to acknowledge, I seem to find myself at the moment in the cast of mind to pick up whatever new volume happens to pop through the door. This is a Bad Habit, I know, as I should be reading all the books I already own, or some of my review copies – but I just can’t make myself read what doesn’t feel right! Today’s post is about a case in point; “Singapore Dream and Other Adventures” by Hermann Hesse was a recent discovery and when it arrived I just couldn’t resist it…

Hesse is, of course, an author with whom I have a long acquaintance; I first read him in my early 20s, have revisited his work many times over the year and even co-hosted a Hermann Hesse Reading Week back in 2016 with Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (you can find details on the page on the blog). As you can see from the image on the page, I thought I already had pretty much everything which had been translated into English; however, I stumbled across mention of “Singapore Dream” earlier this month and went off into a fit of excitement, ordering a copy straight away. The excitement hadn’t dimmed by the time the book arrived, and so needless to say it didn’t even get a chance to get onto the TBR!

Most of the Hesse books I own are older copies/translations from my first splurge of buying his books all those years ago; “Singapore Dream”, however, was issued in 2018 by Shambhala Publications in the USA, and the work is translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn. It collects together, as the subtitle reveals, a series of travel writings from an Asian journey Hesse took in 1911, as well as poems about that period and a short story. Although the blurb on the back of the book claims that none of the works has been translated into English before, the translator’s preface does indicate the short story and a couple of the poems *have* been translated before. That’s by the by, really, because the collection as a whole is a cohesive gathering and gives a wonderful insight into Hesse’s travels as well as his thoughts about the East.

The book comes with a useful map at the beginning, tracing Hesse’s journey from Genoa, down the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, Ceylon, Sumatra and Singapore. It was an epic journey, one he took with a friend, partly as an opportunity to travel and see this part of the world but also to avoid his family’s expectations that he should follow an ecclesiastic route. Hesse may have been drawn to religion but it was not that of his forebears…

As for myself, I want a sarong and brown sarong pants and to go with that, a green velvet cap and a sporty, jacket-length dressing gown of thin yellow silk…

Part 1 of the book contains the ‘Sketches and Essays‘ where Hesse records his journey, his experiences in the various villages, cities and jungles through which he passes, and his thoughts whilst doing so. His prose captures the lush vegetation, the heat, the different cultures and peoples he encounters, his dreams, his doubts and also, very strongly, his dislike of the colonial whites and the effect they’re having on the landscapes he moves through. Hesse is always happier exploring the indigenous cultures rather than sitting playing cards with white settlers, which gives his narrative even more power.

The eleven poems featured are again beautiful and evocative, capturing Hesse’s emotions more deeply as he moves through his journey. I’ve read some of his poetry before and commented at the time on his sense of yearning and melancholy. Certainly that permeates the verse here, and it’s quite beautiful.

My heart clenches with joy,
It beats with love, drunk on the bliss of travel.
(from ‘Arrival at Ceylon’)

The final piece in the book is a short story, ‘Robert Aghion‘, and it really is a triumph, following the adventures of a young clergyman as he travels to India to ‘convert’ the people there to the Word of the Lord. Aghion is singularly unfit for the job, since he has no real missionary zeal and is more interested in collecting the insects and butterlies he finds (Hesse drawing on his own tendencies here, I suspect!); and needless to say, his encounters with the colonial whites are unpleasant. Instead, he finds himself drawn to the native Indian people, dazzled by their multitude of Gods and beliefs which seem to co-exist quite happily, and repelled by Western culture. An encounter with a beautiful Indian girl will play havoc with his emotions – but will East and West be able to break down the societal boundaries which exist between them?

“Singapore Dream” is a wonderful read from start to finish, full of such riches. Of course, Hesse was drawn to Eastern thought and culture, with many of his works exploring beliefs from those countries; “Siddhartha” of course springs to mind, and “Journey to the East”. However, the sketches and essays have an immediacy which draws you in, so that you’re travelling alongside Hesse, experiencing with him what he sees and discovers. The prose is beautiful and evocative, and the landscape and its people come vividly to life. The poetry is gorgeous and the short story impressive; in fact, the latter kept bringing to mind Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” which I read and wrote about in the early days of the Ramblings. In both cases, the authors understand that Western culture really shouldn’t and can’t be imposed on peoples living in other lands with their own ancient cultures, and the efforts of white missionaries will always fail.

Of all the European buildings out here, only the bungalows that have been built in the well-to-do residential suburbs are beautiful. They are fresh, livable, and look charming in their luxuriant park landscape. These bungalows are beautiful because they have perforce been adapted to the needs of the climate and therefore have had to retain the general qualities of the archetypal Malay house. Everything else that the whites have built, and are building here, would have been quite nicely suited to a German railroad station avenue of the eighties.

With any book of this age, there’s always the risk of terminology which can be problematic, and it’s mostly avoided here. There’s one instance of the n-word, but as this is used by a disgusting colonial white man in the short story, I assume it’s deliberate to show how loathsome he is. Hesse condemns colonial attitudes throughout the sketches and the short story (very strongly in the latter), and although his descriptions of other races are perhaps not as sensitively done as we would prefer them to be nowadays, he respects other cultures and quite obviously prefers them to the Western white colonials. There is always the risk of exoticising the East too, but it does seem that Hesse’s love of the culture is genuine. It’s a book which is from 1911 so I think that, compared with so many of his time, he had very forward-thinking views.

As I mentioned, translator Sherab Chodzin Kohn provides an interesting preface, putting Hesse’s journey into context. The translation itself reads well, although there were a couple of aspects which made me pause a little. Obviously, this is an American edition and so there is inevitably the occasional ‘gotten’ to annoy the life out of me, or ‘pants’ for trousers. More of concern was the fact that at one point there is talk of Hesse having a large amount of money to spend and the translator renders this as ‘dollars’. Personally, unless that was actually in the original German (and I have no way of checking), I would have preferred that to be e.g. German Marks, with a footnote giving me some kind of equivalent. I like a translation to still sounds as if I’m reading an author who wrote in a different language, with local terms retained where possible. However, these are minor points, and didn’t get in the way of my reading experience.

So “Singapore Dream” turned out to be a huge treat; a recently-translated work by a favourite author in a lovely edition which was a joy to read from start to finish. I imagine there must be a lot more of Hesse which I’ll never be able to read as it’s not translated, but at least I was able to enjoy this. I can’t remember where I saw mention of it (probably on Twitter or someone else’s blog) – but wherever it was, and from whom, thank you! Reading a new Hesse is a highlight of my reading year! 😀

#1920Club – the ones that got away! ;D

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Phew! Well, that was an interesting and varied week of reading. Thanks *so* much to everyone who joined in – it’s been a particularly wonderful Club and I think 1920 was a great year to choose. So many unexpected books turn out to have been published in the year and it’s been fascinating reading everyone’s posts and comments!

I’m very happy with the books I read for 1920, but inevitably I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to. So here is a pile of the books I have on hand and *could* have read, but which got away…

pile of books flowers james joyce colette cheri 1920 club reading

As you can see, there are some chunky books as well as slim ones, and lovely choices. I regret not getting back to either Mansfield or Colette, as I’ve been keen to revisit both. Hesse is an old favourite too, and “Wandering” was appealing right now, though may well have triggered claustrophobia…

“Ulysses” is more of a long-term goal, so I didn’t really intend to tackle that one this week, tbh. Likewise, the Lawrence might be a good place for me to try to start with his work, but it didn’t feel this was the right moment. The Fitzgerald and Carswell are books I haven’t read (though I’ve read other books by both of them and loved them). Again, not enough time…

So those are the possible reads which got away. Maybe I’ll catch up with at least one of them later on this year. However, as I said, I’m very happy with what I read as I chose some favourite authors and also managed to get back into reading Proust! I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading along with Simon and myself, and do share links to any posts I’ve missed on the 1920 Club page here – I’ll try to gather up any links I’ve missed over the next few days.

As for which year we choose for our next Club in six months’ time? Watch this space…. ;D

#1920club – looking at some previous reads

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As is traditional during our Club reading weeks, I plan to take a look back at some previous reads from 1920. However, unlike before, I’m struggling to find any books from that year which I’ve actually covered on the Ramblings! (Mind you, the blog is not that well indexed…) Looking through lists from that year, I’ve identified several past reads, and here they are:

books and flowers colette hungry hears katherine mansfield bliss #1920club

Colette’s “Cheri” (seen here in two different editions, both of which include “The Last of Cheri”) is a book I read back in the day and have been determined to revisit at a number of points but always failed – I don’t know why, but because of the size of the book in which I’m currently involved, I think the same thing may happen again this time.

Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” is again a collection I read in my twenties; Mansfield is a marvellous author, and I loved the dramatised version of her life which I was lucky enough to receive as a gift. Another writer I should go back and re-read…

There are two volumes by Hermann Hesse in the pile – “Klingsor’s Last Summer” and “Wandering”. I read tons of Hesse in my twenties, and *presume* I read these as they’re in my collection. But alas, I can’t actually be sure! The covers are – well, very dated…

And finally in the picture is “Hungry Hearts” by Anzia Yezierska. I *know* I’ve read this collection of short stories, tales of a Polish-Jewish immigrant in turn of the 20th century New York, and I remember being very affected by them. I have a Penguin Modern Classic edition, though the book was also a Virago. I was pleased to find I still had this one in the stacks!

Not pictured, alas, is a wonderful book I’ve read and loved but don’t seem to have a copy of any more (which is a shame). I refer of course to “Queen Lucia” by E.F. Benson, the first in his magnificent Mapp and Lucia sequence. I owned and read all six books back in my twenties, and was obsessed with the wonderful Channel 4 adaptation. Alas, they’ve gone AWOL somewhere down the years – but I can recommend them to anyone, and I believe they can be got in omnibus editions at a rather reasonable price.

So – that’s some of my previous reads for 1920. Do share what you’ve read in the past or are reading now – there are some varied and wonderful books from the year and I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone is discovering and enjoying! 😀

The Master of the Game

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The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

Choosing my final read for Hermann Hesse Reading Week was very difficult; there are so many wonderful books by this author, and I could have gone for an early work, more poetry or autobiography. However, in the end, I felt I’d like to revisit his masterwork, “The Glass Bead Game” and so I dug out my old, frail Penguin Modern Class; as after my experiences with the “Steppenwolf” translation, I wanted to read again the work I’d read decades ago.

glass bead

My Penguin has nothing but the bare text of the book (as they did in those days) and I actually found it very refreshing to read an older book not riddled with note, forewords and afterwords. Instead, I was a left as a reader to judge the work in isolation on its own merits, and treated as having enough intelligence to look up or work out any reference I didn’t understand – which I enjoyed very much.

“The Glass Bead Game” was Hesse’s final work, the one specifically cited by the Nobel Board when awarding him his prize, and is regarded by many as his finest book. Set in the future, in the elite world of Castalia, it tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a Master of the Glass Bead game, and his life and experiences and philosophies. Hesse uses a similar framing narrative structure to “Steppenwolf”, placing himself as biographer and editor of Knecht’s surviving works, and at times employing a similar authorial tone.

Knecht (the word in English can denote servant or knight) is a man with no family; brought up as a scholarship school pupil, he’s picked out by a visiting Music Master to be sent to the Castalian schools to study. Joseph shows a talent for music and does well at the school, even being picked as a kind of debating champion to defend it in argument against a guest student from outside, Plinio Designori. The debates between the two are enlightening, and their friendship will have an important effect on Knecht’s life.

The book goes on to trace Knecht’s path through the hierarchy to reach the high title of Magister Ludi, Master of the Glass Bead Game. His way is not as straightforward as many a Master, taking in a period of study with a reclusive Elder Brother in his Bamboo Grove, and also a series of politically motivated visits to a Monastery in the outside world. Here he encounters Father Jacobus, a renowned historian, who gives him a wider perspective on life than he receives from just Castalia.

Interestingly enough, the further Joseph progresses up the ladder of status, the more he finds himself questioning the raison of Castalia; and when he becomes Magister he carries out his duties brilliantly, all the while with a mind that is perhaps yearning to be elsewhere. He eventually reaches a decision about his future which will have dramatic consequences for him, but may lead to Castalia surviving as a repository of culture for a little longer than it might otherwise…

People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer’s slide rule and the computations of bank and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization – technology, industry, commerce, and so on – also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.

I’m not going to give more than a plot outline here, because I’m sure hundreds of theses have been written on “The Glass Bead Game” which barely scratch the surface. This is one rich, complex book chock full of ideas and I can see why it would have been cited by the Nobel committee. Published in 1943, at the height of WW2, it’s in many ways a cry out for civilisation and humanity. Castalia came into being after a period referred to as The Age of the Feuilleton, which is pretty much the 20th century, full of its wars and crises. It’s a country where civilisation and study and education have reached a high peak; and yet it’s an oddly sterile place. For example, they study the greats of classical music but don’t try to create any, and the same goes for the other arts. In fact, Knecht is unusual in writing poetry (some of which is presented at the end of the biographical section, along with some of his other writings.) It’s rather as if you can have a lively, messy, vibrant but violent world that creates great works of art, or a civilised world of the mind that cannot create, only study.

The game itself is a unique synthesis of several different artistic disciplines which is never completely defined but of which mathematics and musical seem to be the strongest threads. It’s never given a tangible, physical structure; instead, it exists as an abstract concept, an ideal which unites all the arts and sciences in one complete whole.

Generations ago this famous Game had begun as a kind of substitute for art, and for many it was gradually developing into a kind of religion, allowing highly trained intellects to indulge in contemplation, edification, and devotional exercises.

But despite the heights that Castalian culture has reached, it is not enough to hold a man like Joseph Knecht. For all its admirable traits and achievements, the inhabitants are living in an ivory tower, too detached from the everyday world; and I did wonder if Hesse was making an analogy here with the 20th century intelligentsia, many of whom spent the 1930s ignoring the forthcoming conflict.

The wave is already gathering; one day it will wash us away.

There is a very strong sense of a civilisation in decline and Knecht (and the reader!) is aware of the inability of intellect to resist the tendency of war. Throughout the book I also felt the subtle influence of Eastern religions, which is prevalent in so many of Hesse’s works, and it adds another element to Knecht’s journey through life.

The one flaw I found in this glittering gem of a book was the fact that the world of the Elite and the Glass Bead Game is entirely male; the constant analogies to religious orders seems to reinforce the ascetic, restricted world view held by the Castalians. However, there were female religious orders, and at the time Hesse was writing, women were a prominent feature in art, literature, mathematics and the sciences. So why Hesse chose to make his order entirely male is something that’s up for speculation.

The biographical story of Knecht ends dramatically, and perhaps a little unexpectedly; however, this is followed by the sequence of poems I mentioned above, as well as three biographical sketches supposedly penned by Joseph as part of his studies. These could be read as alternative lives of Knecht, and covering the life of a pagan shaman, a Christian hermit and a Prince. All are fascinating in their own right, but also shed light on the man as he was and as he could have been. There is a common theme in all the stories – one perhaps that runs through all of Hesse’s work – of searching; it’s a trait we humans have of wanting to look for more and certainly it seems as if Hesse’s spent much of his life searching for knowledge and wisdom. And the poems attributed to Knecht share that same kind of longing as those in the collection of Hesse’s verse I reviewed earlier this week.

There’s so much more you could say about this wonderful, luminous book but I’ll stop here. Hesse created a rich and complex mythology of an intellectual pursuit and its champion; a book full of philosophy and speculation, debate about the best way to live your life, and with a central character who is alive and loveable. It’s no wonder that this book has become such a classic, as the issues it discusses are still vital and important. I’m so glad to have revisited “The Glass Bead Game” and it’s been a wonderful way to finish off Hermann Hesse Reading Week!

Outsider Culture and the Wolf from the Steppes

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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.

steppen

“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).

hesse

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.

************

* 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…

The birthday of Hermann Hesse

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I’ve talked about my discovery and love of Hermann Hesse’s work before here, and I’d intended to re-read more of his books, but new ones have just got in the way.

However, today is his birthday, which has reminded me again of his writings – so here are a few of his words which appeal to me.

“There is no escape. You can’t be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen, a wholesome, upstanding man. You want to get drunk, so you have to accept the hangover. You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies, so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea. Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain, the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death. Say yes to everything, shirk nothing. Don’t try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen. You are not a Greek. You are not harmonious, or the master of yourself. You are a bird in the storm. Let it storm! Let it drive you! How much have you lied! A thousand times, even in your poems and books, you have played the harmonious man, the wise man, the happy, the enlightened man. In the same way, men attacking in war have played heroes, while their bowels twitched. My God, what a poor ape, what a fencer in the mirror man is- particularly the artist- particularly myself!”

220px-Hermann_Hesse_2

Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far off farm,
I hold still and listen a long time.

My soul turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers.

My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal, and a cloud bank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions. What should I reply?

 

hesse

“To hold our tongues when everyone is gossiping, to smile without hostility at people and institutions, to compensate for the shortage of love in the world with more love in small, private matters; to be more faithful in our work, to show greater patience, to forgo the cheap revenge obtainable from mockery and criticism: all these are things we can do. ”

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