book-reviews

The Glass Bead Game

by Hermann Hesse

Rating: ★★★★

It's been a couple of days since I finished this book, and I'm still not sure how to approach a qualitative description of it. On the surface, the book is a fictional biography of a man who is raised in the elite academic schools of Castalia, an educational/cultural establishment within a future Germany. The man is portrayed as having a pseudo-revolutionary influence, particularly with respect to the Glass Bead Game, a game of complex allusion and comparison which is the primary entertainment, art and fledgling religion of Castalia.

The plot is slow-moving, and the biographical device makes the narrative strangely detached, but I wouldn't call either of those factors necessarily negative. In fact, the leisurely pace and academic tone of the book fits perfectly with the content, as the protagonist drifts in the idyllic academic environment and attempts to discern the correct employment for his talents - a love of the life around him conflicting with a conviction that something is substantially lacking in Castalia.

The overriding impression of the novel is of a piece of work which has been skillfully crafted to convey several underlying points and themes, without being loud or angry in its delivery. Chief amongst these themes is the relationship between academia and the rest of the world, but the importance of history, the argument for elitism and the relationship between serenity and sorrow in defining humanity all also feature. It is relaxing to read, but tugs charmingly at the soul.

I can find little to fault with the book. It seems petty to mention that the ending felt a little abrupt, or that the detached poems and short stories could perhaps have been introduced into the main text as chapters (and with both these points I can see good arguments against them being valid criticisms). The main character, it must be said, comes over as a little too perfect, though it could well be the eyes of his biographers at fault there.

Despite being entrancing, I didn't feel the book was actually mind-blowing, hence limiting its rating to the four stars it has. That said, I can see its gentle influence lasting with me for some time. If you're a patient person, I could happily recommend this book to you. If you're after action, you'd best avoid it.