STEPPENWOLF, A NOVEL BY HERMANN HESSE (BOOK REVIEW AND RECOMMENDATION)

 In this post, I shall review Steppenwolf, a well known novel by German-Swiss author Herman Hesse. Steppenwolf was the tenth novel published by Hesse and it remains one of his most popular works. Originally published (as Der Steppenwolf) in 1927 in Germany, it was translated to English two years later. 

I read this novel years ago. It was not my first work by Hesse. I remember liking it, but not as much as some of Hesse's other works. When I prepare my book reviews, I often reread either part of the book or entire books. I like rereading and I enjoy a chance to compare my impressions.

The novel opens with a preface that is seventeen pages long. Only once the preface is over, does the real book (or book withing a book) begin. In a way, the preface introduces us to the first person narration. In fact, the book itself is presented in the preface as a manuscript written by Harry. Apparently Harry  leaves it to a chance acquaintance, the nephew of his landlady and it is this nephew who writes the preface and explain all of this.







PREFACE 


THIS BOOK CONTAINS THE RECORDS LEFT US by a man whom, according to the expression he often used himself, we called the Steppenwolf. Whether this manuscript needs any introductory remarks may be open to question. I, however, feel the need of adding a few pages to those of the Steppenwolf in which I try to record my recollections of him. What I know of him is little enough. Indeed, of his past life and origins I know nothing at all. Yet the impression left by his personality has remained, in spite of all, a deep and sympathetic one. Some years ago the Steppenwolf, who was then approaching fifty, called on my aunt to inquire for a furnished room. He took the attic room on the top floor and the bedroom next it, returned a day or two later with two trunks and a big case of books and stayed nine or ten months with us.


The nephew in question tells us more about the protagonist of the novel:

 He lived by himself very quietly, and but for the fact that our bedrooms were next door to each other—which occasioned a good many chance encounters on the stairs and in the passage—we should have remained practically unacquainted. For he was not a sociable man. Indeed, he was unsociable to a degree I had never before experienced in anybody. He was, in fact, as he called himself, a real wolf of the Steppes, a strange, wild, shy—very shy—being from another world than mine. How deep the loneliness into which his life had drifted on account of his disposition and destiny and how consciously he accepted this loneliness as his destiny, I certainly did not know until I read the records he left behind him. 

Despite the fact that Harry is very shy and withdraw, the nephew manages to sort of befriend him. At any rate, they establish a connection of some kind. The nephew describes Harry as seeming genuine and intelligent. 

Yet, before that, from our occasional talks and encounters, I became gradually acquainted with him, and I found that the portrait in his records was in substantial agreement with the paler and less complete one that our personal acquaintance had given me. By chance I was there at the very moment when the Steppenwolf entered our house for the first time and became my aunt's lodger. He came at noon. The table had not been cleared and I still had half an hour before going back to the office. I have never forgotten the odd and very conflicting impressions he made on me at this first encounter. He came through the glazed door, having just rung the bell, and my aunt asked him in the dim light of the hall what he wanted. The Steppenwolf, however, first threw up his sharp, closely cropped head and sniffed around nervously before he either made any answer or announced his name. "Oh, it smells good here," he said, and at that he smiled and my aunt smiled too. For my part, I found this matter of introducing himself ridiculous and was not favorably impressed. "However," said he, "I've come about the room you have to let." I did not get a good look at him until we were all three on our way up to the top floor. Though not very big, he had the bearing of a big man. He wore a fashionable and comfortable winter overcoat and he was well, though carelessly, dressed, clean-shaven, and his cropped head showed here and there a streak of grey. He carried himself in a way I did not at all like at first. There was something weary and undecided about it that did not go with his keen and striking profile nor with the tone of his voice. Later, I found out that his health was poor and that walking tired him. With a peculiar smile—at that time equally unpleasant to me—he contemplated the stairs, the walls, and windows, and the tall old cupboards on the staircase. All this seemed to please and at the same time to amuse him. Altogether he gave the impression of having come out of an alien world, from another continent perhaps. He found it all very charming and a little odd. I cannot deny that he was polite, even friendly. He agreed at once and without objection to the terms for lodging and breakfast and so forth, and yet about the whole man there was a foreign and, as I chose to think, disagreeable or hostile atmosphere. He took the room and the bedroom too, listened attentively and amiably to all he was told about the heating, the water, the service and the rules of the household, agreed to everything, offered at once to pay a sum in advance— and yet he seemed at the same time to be outside it all, to find it comic to be doing as he did and not to take it seriously. It was as though it were a very odd and new experience for him, occupied as he was with quite other concerns, to be renting a room and talking to people in German. Such more or less was my impression, and it would certainly not have been a good one if it had not been revised and corrected by many small instances. Above all, his face pleased me from the first, in spite of the foreign air it had. It was a rather original face and perhaps a sad one, but alert, thoughtful, strongly marked and highly intellectual. And then, to reconcile me further, there was his polite and friendly manner, which though it seemed to cost him some pains, was all the same quite without pretension; on the contrary, there was something almost touching, imploring in it. The explanation of it I found later, but it disposed me at once in his favor. 


This acquaintance (the nephew) who was in favour of Harry, is the one who finds Harry's manuscript, writes and adds a short preface of his own and then has the manuscript published. Once the long preface is over,  we learn the actual title of the book is then: Harry Haller's Records (For Madmen Only).

Thus the story of Harry begins and we learn even more about him. It's not exactly a warm story.  The very first sentence contains the word 'kill'.

THE DAY HAD GONE BY JUST AS DAYS GO BY. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life. I had worked for an hour or two and perused the pages of old books. I had had pains for two hours, as elderly people do. I had taken a powder and been very glad when the pains consented to disappear. I had lain in a hot bath and absorbed its kindly warmth. Three times the mail had come with undesired letters and circulars to look through. I had done my breathing exercises, but found it convenient today to omit the thought exercises. I had been for an hour's walk and seen the loveliest feathery cloud patterns penciled against the sky. That was very delightful. So was the reading of the old books. So was the lying in the warm bath. But, taken all in all, it had not been exactly a day of rapture. No, it had not even been a day brightened with happiness and joy. Rather, it had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man; days without special pains, without special cares, without particular worry, without despair; days when I calmly wonder, objective and fearless, whether it isn't time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving.

Harry reflects on himself and the world, he often concludes he is not suited for the world and society. 

While wondering the city, Harry encounters a person carrying an ad for a magic theatre. This person gives Harry a small book, Treatise on the Steppenwolf.  Parts of this book are printed in the novel. Harry tries to find this theatre. Thus, the novel truly begins. 

If I recall well my original review, I wasn't exactly impressed with this novel. In other words, I liked it but I didn't love it. I found some new things to appreciate in rereading, but I still have other Hesse's favourites. This is a profound piece of writing, there's no doubt about that. However, it's not my personal favourite. 


“There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”


Possibly, my main issue with this book is that it was too similar to other Hesse's work I've read. Had this been the first Hesse's novel I've read, I'm sure that I would have been head over heels with it, but so it happens that it wasn't. It was my third novel by Hesse and for me personally, Steppenwolf and its theme of an isolated intellectual/misanthropist didn't move me that much. It might bee because I felt like I had heard it all before. 



While I was reading Steppenwolf, I had this deja vu sensation, a feeling that I have had already read all of it (heard all those life lessons), absorbed them from Hesse's other works. 

Therefore, I found it challenging to fully immerse myself into the story. At least that is what I kept telling myself. Maybe this book demands more concentration than I gave it. Maybe it just isn't my preferred Hesse. 

“I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray that finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.”


Having previously read Narcissus and Goldmund, as well as Siddhartha, I felt that Steppenwolf paled in comparison. Sure, it is an impressive and beautiful (in many ways) piece of writing, but comparing it with other Hesse's novels, I just couldn't find it in much 'novelty'. Despite its originality, it didn't feel strong enough on its own, more a continuation of Hesse's other works. 

“Once it happened, as I lay awake at night, that I suddenly spoke in verses, in verses so beautiful and strange that I did not venture to think of writing them down, and then in the morning they vanished; and yet they lay hidden within me like the hard kernel within an old brittle husk.”

Steppenwolf felt repetitive, offering neither much 'new' food for the thought nor music for the soul. However, it could be just me. It is entirely possible that this book is quite an accomplished work of literature, but I failed to connect to it on a deeper level because I felt like I was hearing a story I had already heard before. A story I liked, but two times was enough for me and I didn't need to hear it for the third time. Alternatively, I might have also missed something completely, a deeper message of some sort that I wasn't able to grasp.


“Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve.”

I still think Hesse's an amazingly intelligent writer, but frankly I wasn't able to fully immerse myself in this one. I did enjoy it, but not nearly as much as his other novels. Steppenwolf is strikingly similar to Siddhartha. Do you remember Siddhartha's infatuation with the prostitute? A similar motive is repeated in Steppenwolf. All I kept thinking was- here comes another intellectual who has issues connecting and communicating not only with other human beings, but with himself as well. I know that's kind of the point, the alienation of a modern human being, but Siddhartha moved me more. The same goes for Narcissus and Goldmund.

I feel like I have nothing new to say about this author, nothing I haven't said in my other reviews. More precisely, I feel like I have sang enough praised to Hesse in my reviews of the above mentioned two novels.


“You should not take old people who are already dead seriously. It does them injustice. We immortals do not like things to be taken seriously. We like joking. Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists, I don't mind telling you in confidence, in putting too high a value on time. I, too, once put too high a value on time. For that reason I wished to be a hundred years old. In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”

.....BUT (and there is always a but) I'm not quite sure is what I have just written true at all. Perhaps I was just unable to fully grasp Steppenwolf. Not because it was too similar to other Hesse's work, but because it wasn't, or rather it was on the surface, but beneath the surface there was something more, something I couldn't quite understand. 

Why could I understand it?Perhaps because I didn't want to deal with this book? Because I have recognized myself in the protagonist but was afraid to admit it? Did this novel truly disappoint me or did I disappoint myself? Now, that's the question. I may need to get back to this one. I want to reread it. I read Steppenwolf twice last month, but I feel like I need to read it once more, so it is possible that I will rewrite this review in the future.

“I want to tell you something today, something that I have known for a long while, and you know it too; but perhaps you have never said it to yourself. I am going to tell you now what it is that I know about you and me and our fate. You, Harry, have been an artist and a thinker, a man full of joy and faith, always on the track of what is great and eternal, never content with the trivial and petty. But the more life has awakened you and brought you back to yourself, the greater has you need been and the deeper the sufferings and dread and despair that have overtaken you, till you were up to your neck in them. And all that you once knew and loved and revered as beautiful and sacred, all the belief you once had in mankind and our high destiny, has been of no avail and has lost its worth and gone to pieces. Your faith found no more air to breathe. And suffocation is a hard death. Is that true, Harry? Is that your fate?”

“Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, it beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap... Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally strongly.”

To conclude, Steppenwolf is an amazing piece of writing. At times it's hard to follow and even a little repetitive in its enforcing of isolation. However, it is a novel that definitely streches benight the surface to look for eternal truth. Some of the lines in this novel are among the most profound that I have ever read. This is not a book to be underestimated, rather it is one that needs to be read with care and concentration. Sure, at times it might be depressing and sad, but those feelings are a part of human experience. We have all felt like Steppenwolf some time or other! I definitely feel greateful to this writing for putting so much of human experience into words. I hope to reread this novel once again some day and dig even deeper.  I definitely give it thumbs up!

“Our leaders strain every nerve and with success, to get the next war going, while the rest of us, meanwhile, dance the fox trot, earn money and eat chocolates...And perhaps...it has always been the same and always will be, and what is called history at school, and all we learn by heart there about heroes and geniuses and great deeds and fine emotions, is all nothing but a swindle invented by the schoolmasters for educational reasons to keep children occupied for a given number of years. It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing...eternity...it isn't fame. Fame exists in that sense only for the schoolmasters. No, it isn't fame. It is what I call eternity...The music of Mozart belongs there and the poetry of your great poets. The saints, too, belong there, who have worked wonders and suffered martyrdom and given a great example to men. But the image of every true act, the strength of every true feeling, belongs to eternity just as much, even though no one knows of it or sees it or records it or hands it down to posterity. In eternity there is no posterity...It is the kingdom on the other side of time and appearances. It is there we belong. There is our home. It is that which our heart strives for...And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our homesickness.”


READ MORE HESSE BOOK REVIEWS: 

SIDDHARTHA BY HERMAN HESSE (BOOK REVIEW) + HUTOVO BLATO (TRAVEL POST) (modaodaradosti.blogspot.com)


Thank you for reading! Have a lovely day. 


Comments

  1. Gracias por la reseña. Es otra obra de este autor que tengo pendiente. Te mando un beso. Me gusta tu atuendo. Te mando un beso.

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  2. Muchas gracias por la reseña y por recordarnos este extraordinario libro. Y es que Hermann Hesse fue un escritor grandioso.

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  3. Oh, it does sound like a man in misery. I like the idea that Harry is shy. Perhaps it is a book about every man. Recently, I found Bony M's Steppenwolf song. And it is a cool song, yet not nearly as iconic as Daddy Cool. Thanks so much for this review. Oh, love the photos too. Such a great outfit and the sweet white walls dotted with some wonderful artwork. All the best to your creativity! Thanks again for reading and your comments. All the best to your travels and inspirations.

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  4. I may have to look for this novel. I like that you do know Hesse so well and the way he writes. Such a fabulous review. Thanks so much! Oh, and some awesome photos of you! Such a great black suit! Perfect for this review! Thank you for your comments. Thank you for reading. All the best to your reading list and your creative adventures.

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  5. Thanks for your suggestion about the writer and the novel. Beautiful pictures of you Ivana 😀

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  6. Yet another one I've read when I was much younger. I don't remember whether I actually loved it or not. He's just one of the authors who were fashionable among the angst-ridden youth back in the day! xxx

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  7. Mi piaci molto con il secondo look Ivana stai benissimo

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  8. I've never read any of Herman Hesse's work. I don't think I would be very interested in the story of an isolated intellectual/misanthropist though from your review, it sounds like Siddhartha would be a better book to start with.

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  9. "Steppenwolf" is indeed a thought-provoking novel that delves deep into the human psyche and existential questions. You look lovely in that suit.

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  10. Hello Ivana!
    It's a pity you didn't read that book in the first place, so you felt a kind of frustration at having already emerged into Hesse's world. As I read on I realise your dilemma when you feel identified with the protagonist and how it bothers you and you feel the need to read and read again!!! I don't like seeing you in such dark colours, but maybe it's to do with how you feel about this book that definitely bothers you!

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  11. Looking very chic in black, Ivana. I haven't read anything but Hermann Hesse, it sounds a bit too heavy-going for my taste. The only Steppenwolf I'm familiar with is the rock band who sung Born to be Wild in Easy Rider. Now I know where the name came from! xxx

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  12. I read that book several years ago and I had the same feeling, I felt that it was not a fluid reading, rather deep feelings at times it seemed melancholic, but at the end of the day it conveys a little of the writer's feelings, by the way I loved your look and this beautiful heels.

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  13. Hermann Hesse is indeed a complex and thought-provoking novel. www.melodyjacob.com

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  14. Hvala ti na sjajnoj recenziji, a moram pohvaliti i tvoje super chic cipelice. Bas mi se dopadaju :)

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All your comments mean a lot to me, even the criticism. Naravno da mi puno znači što ste uzeli vrijeme da nešto napišete, pa makar to bila i kritika. Per me le vostre parole sono sempre preziose anche quando si tratta di critiche.

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