Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2020

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1946

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1946

Translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Walter Sorrell, Penguin, 1965, 1979 reprint.

I am almost too embarrassed to share the excruciating naïveté of this review, but there it is at Blogspot for all to see anyway, and those who’ve read the book may enjoy an opportunity to chat about it set me straight.  To redress my sins, I’ve added excerpts from its citation in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which, (obviously) I didn’t own when I wrote this review.  I apologise too, for the use of the term ‘schizophrenic’… these days I would use ‘bipolar disorder’.

30th November, 2006

Hesse says in his introduction that this is the most misunderstood of his works and I can understand why. It seems to be a first person narration of a person with a mental disorder – maybe schizophrenic or maybe chronic depression – but whatever it was, I got tired of it before long.

The Steppenwolf is a man who feels himself to be half man, half wolf, and he is torn between satisfying his ‘base’ desires (exemplified by sex, dancing, jazz and generally the sort of stuff that most people enjoy but he despises himself for it) and satisfying his intellectual desires (Goethe, Mozart, solitariness and rejecting bourgeois taste).

He meets a strange girl who seems to know what’s good for him, but Hermoine is also a Herman, and a procuress to boot.  She lines up another girl for him, not to mention Pablo the jazz muso.

I know, I know, all this is a metaphor for the crisis in Hesse’s own persona, but at the end of the day, it just didn’t work for me.  At least it was short.  (And so is this ‘review’!)

I finished reading it and journalled it on the 30th of November, 2006.


From the citation in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, A Quintet Book for ABC Books (2006 edition) purchased from the Hobart Bookshop, $45.00

Harry Haller, the protagonist of Steppenwolf, feels himself painfully divided into two diametrically opposed personas. […] Steppenwolf chronicles the tension that dominates Haller’s inner life from three distinct perspectives: his bourgeois landlady’s nephew, a psychoanalytic tract, and Haller’s own autobiographical accounts. With the help of some of the other characters, Haller gradually learns that every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms…

[…]

He determines to explore the multiple aspects of his being, experimenting with his sexuality, frequenting jazz clubs where he learns to dance the fox-trot, and socialising with groups of people whom he formerly regarded with condescension and derision. Thus he realises that these pursuits are to be valued as much as the thrill of intellectual discovery. The highly experimental, perplexing nature of the conclusion goes some way to explaining why Steppenwolf is the most misunderstood of Hesse’s works.

In addition to a brilliant and thought-provoking meditation on the tumultuous process of self-discover, Steppenwolf is a scathing and prescient critique of the complacency of Germany’s middle class amidst the escalating militarism that preceded and made possible Hitler’s rise to power.  (p.322)


Am I going to read it again?  Uh, no. But I have Siddharta and The Glass Bead Game on the TBR, both of which are listed in 1001 Books and I am going to read them in due course.

What I’d really like (and this is my not so secret real reason for publishing this) would be for someone who’s written a proper review of Steppenwolf to tell me where it is so that I can link to it from here.


Responses

  1. This is a recent look at Steppenwolf and rather enjoyed it: https://amysfernweh.wordpress.com/2019/03/17/book-review-steppenwolf-by-hermann-hesse/

    Here is the classic “review”
    https://archives.hassanmalik.org/steppenwolf

    Wikipedia is pretty good too – simpler: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steppenwolf_(novel)

    I read almost all of Hesse’s books and I think Steppenwolf was my least favorite, but The Glass Bead Game was best – Siddhartha maybe second best. It seemed that Steppenwolf was just so ambiguous and all those long sentences could have a multitude of meanings.

    I read it back in about 1970 and I think it was relevant in a different way than it would have been in pre-Hitler Germany – lol. And the meaning a reader would get today would be different from they got in 1970 or 1929. It might be interesting to read reviews from different eras for the historiography of it.

    Like

    • Ah Becky, just what I wanted, a friend to come to the rescue!
      The Glass Bead Game is one that really interests me… years ago, years and years, the husband of a friend *raved* about it, but because he was a bit odd (to put it mildly) and usually read Large Gold Letter fiction by people like Ken Follett, politely filed it away in the back of my mind and then forgot all about it. Until I came across an allusion to it in one of Gerald Murnane’s books. That’s when I bought my copy.

      That’s an interesting point, that we read books differently at different points in time. This ‘review’ of mine shows clearly that I am an entirely different reader to what I was back then, but also it was a different world back then too. As David Malouf says (more elegantly) in his little book On Experience, you can’t un-know things. We have all grown up in a world that knows about the Holocaust, we can’t un-know it, and it shapes our view of the world and of human nature.

      One of the things I like about reading literary bios is that the best of them interrogate the ways the author’s books were received at different times.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa, love your review. No need to be embarrassed, thankfully we all grow in literary maturity and understanding with time and perseverance. At least you are brave enough to share it with us and we can all have a little chuckle together. I read Steppenwolf about 5 years ago but sadly I don’t have a review. I wasn’t blogging then and I don’t remember enough about the book to offer an adequate opinion, except that I remember being somewhat confused by it. I knew it was considered a classic but lacked any knowledge about Hesse himself. I’m currently studying a BA in English Lit and History, and have just completed a course looking at the Literary Canon. One of the things I really took away from the course was the need for some context and background knowledge when reading many of these classic texts. It’s sometimes quite difficult to go in cold. Steppenwolf is a short book, so maybe I will reread it one day and write a review then. It will be interesting to see how you find Hesse’s other two texts.

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    • Thank you, Karen, you are generous in your remarks:).
      That’s definitely true about the value of context: nearly all the Penguin editions of classics that I have an introduction of some sort, and the best ones give the context without giving away spoilers. OUP editions of Zola have excellent introductions.
      But this edition, which was obviously released in a mass market paperback to coincide with the release of the film, has only an author’s note.
      Of course these days, if we are flummoxed, we can always consult Professor Google!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this in my student days, when this novel had a sort of counter-culture reputation- probably among those who hadn’t read it. There was even a band with that name (they play Born to be Wild on the Easy Rider soundtrack, so there’s the hippy connection). I remember little about it, but as others have commented, recall being baffled.

    Like

    • I just wish I’d written more about why I was baffled…my journals were very scrappy in those days.

      Like

  4. We read Siddartha when I was in school, and I loved it. So I bought The Glass Bead Game and… sorry, I just couldn’t finish it. Maybe I should try this one… it is shorter than Glass Bead Game, no?

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    • It’s not the length of it, it’s the difficulty of it…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah… never mind then… I’ve done my Hesse and that’s enough for me.

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  5. I really disliked this when I tried to read it last year Lisa! You have persuaded me to give it another try, but I think I’ll wait a few years first – so many books…

    Like

    • Well… I am surprised that my pitiful little review should have that effect!
      I look forward to seeing your review when it comes and will link to it from here:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I think Steppenwolf is a truly fascinating book. Amongst other things it is a portrait of the intellectual as an outsider. It is also a picture of the loneliness of ageing. There are very imaginative pieces of writing rather a forerunner of magical realism. The final passages achieve a kind of dramatic resolution. It is true to say that it is not a comfortable read. It is possible you will enjoy Siddartha more- thanks for posting.

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  7. […] Apropos a comment made by Becky Lindros from Becky’s books on last week’s Review from the Arch…, about how the reading of books can change over time, Wikipedia notes changing reactions to The Winter of Our Discontent after Watergate: […]

    Like


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