Follow Us on Twitter

Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse


Review by Larry Hershon

THE troublewith Harry Haller, pace Hitchcock, is that he’s not dead. He would have welcomed a coroner’s verdict of suicide, but he never quite manages to pull it off.

And though no one ever contemplates his murder, his own life is, to him, a tortuous mystery of clues, near-clues and fruitless avenues of enquiry. A balding, 40-something disillusioned boho-intellectual in post-Great War Germany, these are perhaps the least of his many selves.

For selfhood is at the heart of this novel. Is Harry Man or Wolf? If only it were that simple. He has lived with that conflict all his life until, in the role of urban flaneur, he is handed, one night, by some other-worldly stranger, a small booklet.

It’s a socio-philosophical, Treatise on the Steppenwolf – the Nietzcshean/jungian/Buddhist therapist’s gratis report on Harry Haller, the patient.

As Harry presents us with its convoluted and wide-ranging findings, it becomes apparent that he has lived a lie in the lone-wolf outcast who’s always at war with the intellectual and spiritual sophisticate.

At odds with the wild loner in him, he has always sought the bourgeois sanctuary he had craved from his earliest years and from which, rather than the woods, he sprang.

So although he eschews that class’s pretensions to property ownership, he rents lodgings only with the most fastidiously genteel of the parquet-shining, araucaria-worshipping German urban middle class (yes, bring on the aspidistras). One of the many interesting paradoxes inherent in this is that he actually derives spiritual energy, “a stimulus without in the least arousing his scorn” (1985, 21-2) from the stasis of bourgeoisité.

Crucially, he learns also from this text the Modernist truism of having very many selves. Harry personifies all humanity in all its seething complexity of jostling impulsions, goals, fears – and prejudices.

It might even by now be apparent that the New York Times’ early assessment of the work as anti-bourgeois critique (as cited in the blurb of my 1985 edition) must be a little wide of the mark.

Yes, Hesse identifies the eternal conflicts of safety versus daring to live, but so too does he incorporate, rather than specifically preach, some of the literary axioms of his time, not least because selfhood, nature versus the machine, jazz-infused urban/industrial modernity versus the enduring spirit, American meretriciousness versus the values of the old Europe (my attempt to characterize but a few threads of the novel) are all pertinent to what is arguably the central, essentially Budddhist concern of successful transcendence to a higher, rarified plane of existence.

And as to that, you may as well forget such hard-won quintessence without, wait for it, a sense of humour.

Harry’s multiple persona, those higher planes and the need to take neither too seriously come together in the latter part of the novel which begins when he takes another look at the declaration in the Treatise which has as its intention suicide at 50, thereby condemning Harry to two or three years more at most of the slinking, convulsive unease which passes for daily existence.

Intending the deed very soon (especially after a disastrous dinner with a young professor and his wife) he sets out for the Black Eagle Jazz café at which he has his next supernatural encounter, this time with a mysteriously alluring young woman.

She is both Harry’s Gothic double (a particularly American literary convention in Hesses’s time – McCullers, Welty et al which Harry himself would therefore despise) and the female invert of his childhood friend Herman, called Hermine.

Her sallow androgyny, intensified later on in the masqued ball sequence, recalls somewhat Robin Vote of Nightwood, though as she speaks, it is clear that here is a rather more spirited creature than Djuna Barnes’ creation.

She understands Harry on both intellectual and spiritual levels but leads him through the further contemporary societal conventions of sensually bleak carnival (our wolf learns the foxtrot with delight), polysexuality (aided by Hermine’s agente, the lovely young Maria, who accords Harry the smallest of spaces in her socio-sexual diary) and drug culture.

The latter is embodied, along with sensual ambivalence, in the young saxophonist Pablo, whose function seems at least in part to present something like Otto Dix’s Berlin-style decadence as yet another facet of the Steppenwolf’s journey through 20s Germany.

It is Pablo who eventually leads Harry through an extraordinary drug-fuelled semi-dream in which he experiences a theatre of many doors, each offering the enactment of part of Harry’s own lives and selves.

And so he plays 1927 LaserQuest when he shoots cars off a cliff road in the final showdown between man and machine (Forsterians take note: The Machine Stops is an instructive comparison here).

He orders the many players and events of his life thus far as chess pieces on a board, consumates, or at worst improves the outcome of the many relationships he never quite had with all the girls in his life (Holden Caulfield comes good, as it were) and, in the final manifestation of the well-worn sex-death trope, Harry kills Hermine as she lies in carnal embrace with Pablo.

Now he is ready for suicide; but not so fast, young man, laugh Harry’s mentors, Goethe and Mozart. You’ve lived a little; now laugh a little. Actually, Harry is caught up so intensely in their near-derisive mirth at life’s achievements and outcomes that any serious attempt at suicide to a hereafter which they regard with the same amusement seems somewhat redundant.

Where does this leave the reader? With an all-too detailed account of the text? Don’t you believe it. Don’t you believe anything. I haven’t told you the half of it. Life’s a struggle – and then you don’t quite die.

You may regret that as you wade through the denser parts of the Treatise. You may find Hesse’s and Harry’s mentors a little overbearing at times (O Rosa! O departed youth! O Goethe! O Mozart!”; 243). But as a bildungsroman of the older protagonist, there is much here which resonates powerfully enough with a similarly-aged generation in our own times on social, cultural, spiritual, sexual, narcotic levels.

It resonates too with (let us offer this tentatively) an IndieLondon readership which must surely include the odd self-professed bourgeois …