Some books seem to belong to youth and need to be reintroduced as we age. Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury were regular companions of mine in high school, yet still hold my interest 30 years later. Alas, the same cannot be said for another companion, Nobel-prize winning writer Herman Hesse.
Rereading Steppenwolf after so many years, the main question I had was, how did I get through this in high school? At that time I read many of Hesse’s novels and was quiet infatuated with his outlook on life. Now, finding myself just slightly older than the protagonist, Harry Haller, aka, Steppenwolf, I just find him annoying. He is not unfamiliar; just the type of person I would not find myself sharing dinner with in a corner booth of the local cafe.
The novel centers around Haller in a manuscript written by him, but left behind in the room he rented. Whatever happens to Steppenwolf in the end, we are not sure. Personally, I’m not interested in a sequel. The Steppenwolf spends his days pondering the great mysteries of life and agonizing over how he does not fit into the society in which he, apparently, does not want to fit into anyway. He obsesses over himself and tries to be humble about how brilliant he is, but he clearly he feels above most other people.
Just when he decides that he can take no more and resolves to kill himself, he meets Hermine, a siren of pleasure who introduces him to other women, teaches him to dance, and shows him how to enjoy life. He suddenly finds himself becoming what he hates, but he enjoys it. In other words, he becomes a person of action, of life, rather than just thought, and he lives a more enjoyable existence. This highlights the dual nature of existence Hesse proposes; indeed, the multiple nature of existence. But in the Steppenwolf, the wolf of the Steppes, we find a man who is half human and half wolf. He can be gracious and social (human), while at the same time despising all society, including himself (wolf).
At this point I had hope for the book. Our annoying narrator begins to see the fool that he is. “The late Herr Haller, gifted writer, student of Mozart and Goethe, author of essays upon the metaphysics of art, upon genius and tragedy and humanity, the melancholy hermit in a cell encumbered with books, was given over bit by bit to self-criticism and at every point was found wanting.”
But no, Hesse then takes us off in a direction which quickly unravels the novel (and I’ll avoid details should you choose to read the novel).
A central theme which is toyed with throughout the novel and emerges more clearly at the end is the idea of laughing at life, including yourself. Haller, the people of eternity are telling him, takes life too seriously. He needs to laugh with the world and at the world, but as a participant and not an observer. Developed in a stronger fashion this could be a fascinating theme, but when Hesse fully introduces it toward the end, it sounds simply trite. He has created of story of too much darkness to simply say you need to laugh.
Many of the themes Hesse deals with seems outdated and sophomoric, but we must remember Hesse, a German, is writing this in between two world wars. Much of what we now see as tiring (e.g. mirrors looking into the soul, the lone individual against society) was more cutting edge at that time. Critics say this is his most autobiographical novel in that, like the narrator, he is coming off a bad marriage and did himself suddenly step out into society for a time. With more distance between himself and the writing, his other novels may hold up better after many years. I’m hesitant to try another one, but am open to recommendations.
So I put this in my classic listing since it comes from a Nobel-prize winning writer (maybe they liked that he left Germany and became a Swiss citizen) and many people, such as myself, have immersed themselves in his work at some point in their career. But a true classic transcends time, and I do not see this novel succeeding on that count.