book-reviews

Autobiographical Writings

by Herman Hesse (tr. Denver Lindley)

Rating: ★★★★

A careful selection of well-composed autobiographical essays, amounting to far less than a full recounting of Hesse's life -- of this we can be sure because he alludes in passing to many events which are kept private. This is a feature rather than a flaw, however, and the discretion shown in the composition makes the volume more useful than a simple chronological collection of all Hesse's autobiographical writing. The editor's introduction, however, was overlong.

I found Hesse to be at his most charming when discussing his childhood, with Childhood of the Magician and Life Story Briefly Told, with their whimsical fantasy elements, being the most poetic pieces. He captures something of a rebellious and playful spirit which is easy to relate to. The greatest part of the later works is A Guest at the Spa, a very comic piece about a Hesse being bored out of his mind while taking the waters at Baden. I agree with Hesse's later judgement of Journey to Nurembourg as being strictly inferior to it, despite being written at and about around the same time -- Journey is very painfully lacking either the good humour of earlier work or the self-critical insight of Steppenwolf. Of the remaining short pieces, On Moving to a New House is probably the best.

I find Hesse a confusing character. At times he is shockingly relatable, as if lifting something from my memory, and then in the very next paragraph he can write something so entirely alien to me that I wonder how we can even communicate. Nonetheless, you see his development as a writer very clearly displayed in this collection, the transition from the flowery to the introspective, as well as the inevitable and solemn decay revealed in the content if not in the style of the last compositions in the '50s.