BOOK REVIEW: Poems by Hermann Hesse

Poems by Hermann HessePoems by Hermann Hesse by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’re like me, you may not have realized that this German author, known for short philosophical novels such as “Siddhartha,” “Steppenwolf,” and “Demian,” was also a poet. This bilingual edition consists of a selection of 31 poems picked and translated by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, James Wright. The poems are short form poems that range from less than a page to three pages, and thus even with the inclusion of the original German verse, the book is only 80 pages.

It’s hard to imagine a more skilled editor / translator than James Wright, who was considered one of the best American poets of his time. When I was reading up on Wright, I saw that major themes in his poems were “loneliness and alienation,” and those themes are certainly seen in this selection, though I cannot tell you if they’re representative of Hesse’s poetry over all or not. The philosophical outlook of Hesse’s fiction certainly shines through in places, as does the sparse, imagery-centric approach seen in Eastern (e.g. Zen) poetry – a style that tries to keep the poet out of it by presenting scene devoid of analysis or judgment.

Though it didn’t do me much good, owing to my inability to speak or even properly pronounce German, I like that the original poems in German are included. An Italian proverb compares poetry translations to women — i.e. the more beautiful, the less faithful. So, it’s always nice for those with bilingual fluency to be able to look at them side-by-side (which is how they are printed.) Sometimes even hearing the poem without understanding meaning can give one insight into the musicality of the verse.

I enjoyed this selection of poems, and while I can’t say how much is Hesse and how much Wright, either way they were well-composed and pleasant to read. I would highly recommend this selection for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

The Journey to the EastThe Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This lesser-known Hesse work adopts a theme common throughout the author’s books in that it’s philosophical man-versus-himself fiction. The book’s protagonist, H.H., is a member of a secretive league [called “The League”] with whom he is undertaking a journey of self-discovery. H.H. fails to complete the expedition, and that fact haunts him into old age. Ultimately, H.H. finds Leo, a servant who’d been on the journey with him, with whom H.H. had a great affinity, and whose disappearance (along with some loot) led to H.H.’s abandonment of the trip. In the process, the lead discovers that nothing was what it seemed.The book examines how vulnerable people are to disillusionment and how quickly they can lose their passion, and it urges the reader to consider from what source one draws one’s strength.

This novella is a little under a hundred pages, and is told in five chapters. The first couple of chapters describe the ill-fated journey. The third chapter is a pivot in which H.H. is considering his inadequate attempt to chronicle events, and is advised to get closure by tracking down Leo. In the last two chapters, H.H. does find Leo, receives the man’s wisdom, and ultimately finds out what really happened.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and simple read, but is extremely thought-provoking. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to think about life’s big questions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

SteppenwolfSteppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Harry Haller lives out-of-step with virtually every aspect of modern society. He finds the prevailing music, art, and entertainment to be trivial and low-brow. He has pacifist tendencies amid strongly nationalist peers. This disjoint between his individual nature and society’s has made him depressed to the point of being suicidal—but he hasn’t been able to bring himself to commit the act, and has instead given himself a deadline.

Enter Hermione (note: her name seems to be rendered “Hermine” in some editions), a woman who is in many ways the exact opposite of Haller. She loves Jazz, enjoys dancing, and doesn’t like to be too serious or analytical about anything. She becomes his Yoda. She teaches him to dance, introduces him to a lover, and exposes him to the delights of frivolity. While the book opens in a way that makes one think it might be an indictment of modern society, what it really shows is how Haller’s unhappiness comes from insisting that society should be fitted to his worldview and proclivities. If he can find a way to get beyond that insistence, he can transcend his unhappiness.

One of the fascinating intrigues of the book is that Hermione early on promises that she will get Haller to do two things: fall in love with her and something else which I’ll leave to the reader but which seems even more unfathomable. This sets up an intense tension that one eagerly follows through the rest of the book. (It’s not so surprising that Haller will fall for Hermione. That seems to happen immediately. Still, you’ll remember that I pointed out that Hermione played cupid and set Haller up with her friend Maria, so it’s fascinating that she intends to make him fall in love with her.)

The organization of the book is a bit unconventional, but it works both in terms of being easy to follow and in providing a multi-dimensional story. (Though if one missed the first part on wouldn’t be at a terrible loss.) The first part is an “Editor’s Preface” as told by the nephew of Harry Haller’s landlady. He comes into possession of Haller’s manuscript and explains what it is that made him go to the trouble of publishing it, despite—as he tells us—he ordinarily would not. It explains how this man’s limited interaction with Haller intrigued him and made him want to tell the story. The second part is labeled “Harry Haller’s Notebooks (for mad people only),” and is from Haller’s perspective. This section shows us a depressed Haller walking the streets and railing against the futility of the world when his attention is captured by a sign for a theater that announces: “Admission not for everybody. For mad people only.” From that point we enter the story itself, which is entitled “On Steppenwolf: A Tract (for mad people only.)”

The novel gets bizarre / surreal at the end as Haller is going through his “Magic Theater” experience. One doesn’t know exactly what is real, what is hallucinogen-induced, and what flows from madness. However, this warped reality works well for a story of transcendence and transformation.

I’d recommend this book for readers generally. It’s short, readable, has intriguing characters, and is thought-provoking. If you like stories that make you think, you’ll enjoy this book.

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