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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Get Your Motor Running

This week, a new book, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, first published in 1927. I am using a Picador edition published in 1963 which features a revised version of the 1929 translation from German to English.

So there.

Hermann Hesse enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1960s and early 70s, sparked, I believe, by interest in his novel about the Buddha, Siddhartha. However, Steppenwolf was not just swept along on Siddhartha’s coattails. No. Viewed as a counterculture tale, its depictions of sexuality and of drug use made it a natural hit in the psychedelic era. Timothy Leary advised his disciples: “Before your LSD session, read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.”

The book is, in my opinion, not “pinned” very firmly to any particular time period, an idea I’d like to return to as we proceed.

My own history with Steppenwolf goes back to those counterculture days.

(whiny voice—I thought you read it in the 1920s).

As I was saying, I’ll confess I first read the book because it was “cool” to do so. I was in high school, I believe, and got hold of the edition with the realist painting on the cover of a woman naked from the waist up.

(Oh, please. Spare us your adolescent fantasies!)

I was entranced by the strange story of Harry Haller and his associations with Hermine, Maria, Pablo, and the Magic Theater. Steppenwolf is a favorite; I’ve read it at least five times and have enjoyed the 1974 movie version starring Max Von Sydow.

(It’s not a footstool, it’s an ottoman!)

The version I’m reading now displays a thickly furred animal on the cover, although it’s at such close range, it’s hard at first to make the animal out, as the image looks abstract. A nice image that captures some of the ambiguous nature of the book, although the other image was pretty hot.

After the title page and publication information, there is an “Author’s Note—1961” in which Mr. Hesse states that “of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was most often and more violently misunderstood than any other…” He goes on to say he realizes a reader is free to make of a book what she/he will, however, “I would be happy, if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis—but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.”

As we read this story, I will muse on Mr. Hesse’s wish.

The story proper begins with a preface, purportedly written by an unnamed nephew who lives in his aunt’s house, a house with a room she rents to a man named Harry Haller. It begins: “This book contains the records left us by a man whom, according to the expression he often used himself, we called the Steppenwolf. Whether this manuscript needs any introductory remarks may be open to question.” This narrator goes on at some length recording his “recollections” of the Steppenwolf before concluding and presenting what are described as certain notebooks written by Haller and left behind after his departure from the aunt’s house. These notebooks comprise the bulk of the story.

An intriguing way to begin. The implied author employs a character narrator—who does not reappear—and raises the issue of whether his contribution is needed. I think it is. It represents the implied author offering a guide or template on how the Steppenwolf’s journals should be read. Imagine what a different reading experience it would be to skip this preface and begin with the journals. Dena gave me this idea from her reading of another book.

A smart lady.

(whiny voice—Mr. Big Shot, is this another adolescent fantasy? Did you skip the preface?)

I have never skipped the preface but I imagine doing so would mean having much less context for reading the bulk of the novel.

The narrator describes being very suspicious of Haller at first, to the point where he warns his aunt not to trust him. The narrator “snoops,” entering Haller’s rooms when he is not present and searching for trouble. But he then describes being gradually charmed by Haller, charmed and touched by his suffering and his noble struggles to express it.

At the end of the preface, the narrator writes: “And now I have gossiped enough. No more is needed to show that the Steppenwolf lived a suicidal existence. But all the same I do not believe that he took his own life when, after paying all he owed but without a word of warning or farewell, he left our town one day and vanished. We have not heard from him since and we are still keeping some letters that came for him after he left. He left nothing behind but his manuscript. It was written during the time he was here, and he left it with a few lines to say that I might do what I liked with it…I have no doubt that they (the manuscript entries) are fictitious…They are rather the deeply lived spiritual events which he has attempted to express by giving them the form of tangible experiences…I have no doubt that even they have some basis in real occurrence.”

So the reader is told how to read the book. At first, the character of Haller may seem strange, even dangerous but with time, his exquisite sensibility will emerge, making the reading of the text a valuable experience. The reader is exhorted to stay with something that may seem strange at first.

Like sushi.

The narrator’s contribution tends to increase the feeling of realism in the story. Even though the whole thing is written as a novel, a made-up story, the reader is told that, on the contrary, the journals are the writings of a “real” person. The reader is thrice removed from the real author, Hermann Hesse: once by the implied author, once by the narrator, who mediates between the journals and the reader, and once by Harry Haller, the journal’s author.

‘Kay. With this in mind, we begin. Next time, dear friends.


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