book-reviews

Steppenwolf

by Herman Hesse (tr. David Horrocks)

Rating: ★★★★

When I first started Steppenwolf and read through the introductory sketch of the landlady's son and Haller's own description of himself, I was afraid that this was going to be a cringeworthy novel. Haller's image of himself was painfully juvenile, and it was particularly stinging because one or two facets of that image were something I could identify with. There is perhaps nothing so uncomfortable as identifying with a pathetic character, and if Hesse had truly written a novel where Haller mopes around being a misunderstood genius who called himself a wolf, it would've been torture.

But I underestimated Hesse on that first approach. Steppenwolf is not about Haller as a hero, or even a brooding figure to be examined. As fairly soon becomes apparent, in Haller's self-examination and later in a damning magical pamphlet he is handed about his life, this is about the many ways Haller's self-image, and indeed his approach to life, is fundamentally flawed. This is particularly important when you realise that Haller is one of Hesse's most obvious self-insert characters. Writing about a man his own age, with his own initials, in almost the exact same life circumstances, Hesse is pretty brutal. As the heroine of the novel quickly demonstrates, Haller's tortured nature is a form of rampant egotism and self-involvement. He thinks himself alone because he never cares to take an interest in others, assumes he should be aloof of things because they do not conform to his image of the great classics. He is not unintelligent, but this only makes his delusion the greater. The book repeatedly attacks his nature, his fundamental attitudes. Anyone who identified with the first face of Haller is in turn rebuked.

It is not all strictly negative. Hesse stands by his (or Haller's) societal critiques, which warn of a second world war and damn the attitudes of the NSDAP -- as written in 1927. Haller shows signs of growth, under the influence of Hermione, matching (the translator's notes reveal) some of Hesse's own experimentation and attempts and broadening horizons. In the end, however, he fails to properly shed his old personality, and a composite of self-deception, jealousy and suicidal arrogance lead to censure from the unnamed higher consciousness and, though it is obscured somewhat by a surreal framing, the loss of his love interest.

Horrocks' translation is very good, presenting a 'modern' tone which is very in keeping with the style and nature of the book. His explanatory notes hit at all the right points, constraining themselves to facets of the novel which were unfamiliar -- mostly references to novels and music of the late 19th century which are no longer familiar to readers. I find it likely that any other translation would be strictly inferior in this regard.