Tag Archives: Hermann Hesse

Ripping Through the Curtain

In my past life as a sociologist I studied ideas that exposed the true nature of human behavior. No one and no thing was held sacred; scratch beneath the surface of society’s conventions and you’ll see people as they really are. Later, as I began reading more widely, I realized that novelists were doing this long before sociologists.

Milan Kundera argues a similar point in The Curtainhis book of essays about the novel. Beginning with Don Quixote, he argues, novelists began to draw back the social “curtain” that hides the truths of life. It’s the duty of subsequent novelists to expose even more of what the curtain hides.

Here I recommend some of my favorite novels that, for me, did more than draw back the curtain — they ripped right through it:

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse — I could include the Hesse canon in this list, but for simplicity I decided to go with the Hesse standard. Siddhartha is a fictionalized account of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment, and does a good job of introducing Hesse’s favorite themes of internal conflict and searching. Like the real Buddha’s journey, Siddhartha reveals the true nature of reality that hides behind the curtain of our worldly desires.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera — Naturally, Kundera’s best known work is a study of the truth behind the curtain, in this case the Iron Curtain. Indeed, in this and much of his other work, Kundera displays a preternatural understanding of men’s and women’s hearts and minds laid bare by the 20th century socialist political machine. 

Independent People by Halldor Laxness — I’ve bragged up Laxness’s World Light here before, so now I should mention his other great novel, Independent People. In this epic, an Icelandic farmer works hard to maintain his illusions of independence even as history conspires against him. Laxness is a master of lifting the curtain to reveal the often ridiculous nature of individual and social hubris.

The Lurker at the Threshold by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth — Ah, the ultimate rending of the curtain, in this case literally as Yog Sothoth rips through the fabric of mankind’s silly reality. Lovecraftian horror is probably not quite what Kundera has in mind, but for me—and for many others, I think—Lovecraft and fellow Cthulhu Mythos writers like Derleth exposed how puny our presumptions truly are.

What books ripped through the curtain for you?


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Hermann Hesse: The Fairytales

Hermann Hesse has all the earmarks of a neglected master.  His books, with the occasional exception of Demian and Siddhartha, are rarely assigned.  Steppenwolf and Siddhartha are read outside the well-manicured groves of academe by the errant, bleary-eyed follower of Kerouac or the clear-eyed seeker of esoteric knowledge, often the same person at different places on the never-ending path.

Yet, master he is, evinced by this simple test: when you meet a follower of Hesse, ask which is her/his favorite book.  Invariably, you will get a broad spectrum of replies: Narcissus and Goldmund, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, Strange News from Another Star and Other Tales, Demian, Wandering.

Mine is The Journey to the East.

As part of my New Year’s resolution from last year, I was going to dip into some of the lesser-known works of Hesse.  As all but one of those reading resolutions went unrealized, I decided this year I would do some catching up, at least in this case.

Which brings us to The Fairytales of Hermann Hesse, translated by Jack Zipes and published in 1995. And what a wonderful, as in full of wonder, collection it is.  Zipes is one of the most famous authorities on fairy tales alive today and has collected, translated, and annotated some of the classic fairy tales from many cultures, including the complete Brothers Grimm, the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables, as well as French, German, feminist, and Victorian fairytales.  He has also penned a number of groundbreaking non-fiction studies on the subject.

“Märchen” is the German word for fairytale (and roughly translates as “tales of wonder”); this particular type of tale has a romantic tinge,  and it is in this genre that Hesse was experimenting with these stories. In fact, the original German publication of many of these stories were collected together in a volume entitled Märchen.  They contain many fantastical, wondrous elements which at once give them a universal, slightly surreal quality when filtered through Hesse’s consciousness.   The spellbinding influence of 19th century German fantasy writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, the author of The Mouse King and the Nutcracker from which the famous Nutcracker ballet was adapted, may be felt at different times throughout the volume.

For Hesse, Zipes provides a unifying voice and a context into which the tales have been collected.  Previously, 16 of the 22 tales in this book have been translated into English by 3 different translators in 4 different volumes: Strange News from Another Star and Other TalesStories of Five Decades, Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies, and If The War Goes On.  By extracting the stories with fairytale elements and collecting them together, Zipes has given Hesse fans a whole new way of looking at him, an extra dimension that adds depth and understanding not only to these particular stories, but to the whole of Hesse’s output.

The tales themselves are quite marvelous, ranging from traditional style folk/fairytales to fantasy, with varying elements of fable, science fiction, dream, proverb, and allegory.  Among my favorites is the Kafkaesque story, “A Man Named Ziegler,” about a young man who comes to a new town and decides to spend his off day at a museum and zoo; without thinking, he swallows a “tiny globule” from a medieval exhibit, heads off to the zoo and is suddenly able to understand and communicate with the animals.  As one might expect, they are naturally none too happy with human beings.  The brief fable, “A City,” is the tale of the rise, fall, and imminent rise again of a town, told from an omnipotent, god-like perspective and is quite well-done.  Hesse has a bit of fun at the expense of “militant” vegetarians, a  group similar to which he himself had joined briefly in 1907, in the story “Dr. Knoegle’s End.” “Augustus” is a tale stylistically reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson and yet a perfect example of how Hesse made the form his own.   “The Poet,” too, is also in the style of folklore yet focussed on such familiar Hesse themes as creativity and the quest for self-knowledge.

Dreams, nature, and the consequences of war are recurrent themes, sometimes treated from an apocalyptic perspective and at other times allegorically: “If the War Continues” and “Empire” are prime examples. Like “The Poet,” “The Fairy Tale of the Wicker Chair,” and “The Painter,” the stories examine various aspects of the artistic life.  The volume concludes with perhaps the best story of all, entitled “Iris,” about the secret life of a very young boy in his garden, how he grows up and away from what was most important to him, eventually attempting to recapture the lost magic of his childhood dreams.

David Frampton woodcut

And as if all this was not enough, the book is charmingly illustrated with 13 woodcuts, including the cover, by David Frampton, which somehow exhibit a classic tone yet have a strangely contemporary feel.

These insightful little tales make for perfect reading during snowbound mid-winter days.  Whether you are a lifelong Hesse fan, interested in fairytales, or looking for something at once meatier yet engaging in a volume of short fiction, this book might be just the ticket.  Who knows, perhaps you too might recapture some of the forgotten magic of an earlier time when a story meant more than a quick read and its resonance might last a lifetime, and beyond.



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On Translating Book to Film: Bright Star & The Razor’s Edge

There is a moment in the new Jane Campion film Bright Star, about the love affair of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, that is one of the finest, most moving cinematic moments I’ve seen in film in years.   In the scene, Fanny is told of the death of Keats, who had gone to Italy because of his failing health.   Still composed, Fanny leaves the room, evidently to go upstairs to be alone with her thoughts.  She stops in the hallway at the foot of the stairs and is overwhelmed with emotion.   Campion keeps the camera in the room she has just departed, creating a distance, a removal in our observation of the scene.   Fanny breaks down, begins to sob and cry out, loudly, and falls, shaking with the sheer weight of pain and grief.   Her mother follows her into the hall.

Fanny’s mother does not say a single word.  She sinks down to the floor with her daughter, who is shaking, nearly thrashing amidst the throes of unspeakable pain.  She doesn’t say a word.  She takes her in her arms and begins to breathe: slowly, deliberately, deeply, the mother breathes with her daughter in her arms.   As the spasms begin to pass, the viewer can see the daughter catching the very rhythm of her mother’s breath and begin to synchronize to it, as a mother does when taking up an infant lost in a paroxysm of tears. 

With not a single word, the viewer, too, is overcome as witness to a scene so primal, so private, that to bear it we must see it from afar.  It is simply brilliant, heartrending cinema.

This moment for me recalled another similar moment in film from the much maligned 1984 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, directed by John Byrun and starring Bill Murray, who co-wrote and helped spearhead the making of the film.   Toward the end of the movie, Larry Darrell (Murray) confronts Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) about her complicity in the death of her perceived rival, Sophie McDonald, and her general disconnection from all things because of her rampant solipsism.    Darrell grasps Isabel about the neck, miming strangulation, saying, “Isabel, Isabel, you just don’t get it.  It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter.”  Darrell never tells her why it doesn’t matter, which is the core of Isabel’s problem, but his hands at her throat say it all.

Both of these single scenes capture the tonal quality of the original stories without rubbing the viewer’s nose in the point.  The filmmaker in each case lets the denouement take place in the viewer’s head; they are both simple, powerful cases of “show, don’t tell.” 

These films, plus a recent review of The Road, the new movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, got me to thinking about what it takes to make a successful translation from book to movie.  I don’t think I can really sketch out the elements; if I could, I suppose I’d be writing in Hollywood and not library-ing in Pittsburgh.  I do know that catching the ambiance of a book, while staying real or true to its nature, is what meant a lot to me in Bright Star and The Razor’s Edge.  The review of The Road I read said that it was too faithful to the book, and that really got my attention.   It states that the adaptation’s “literal fidelity prevents the film from approximating the novel’s power.”  The review by Eric Hynes, from Slate.com, continues:

It’s a matter of proportion. Action and dialogue constitute but a fraction of what comprises McCarthy’s grim epic. Yet it seems like all of the book’s dialogue and main action has been shoehorned into the film’s svelte two hour running time. Scenes and exchanges are steadily beaded throughout, relegating McCarthy’s repetitions, silences, and blanketed dread to moments of scenic transition. Instead of quiet, anticipatory terror, the film plays as chatty, pulse-pounding thriller. Scenes that transpire over several paragraphs in the 250-page book loom larger when dramatized to five minutes out of 113. The film doesn’t belabor its flashbacks — scenes in which Charlize Theron stars as an intractably hopeless wife and mother — but these are blink-and-they’re-gone fever-dreams in the book, not moments ripe for star-powered drama.

Certain incidents in McCarthy’s book are vivid and unshakable — the fired bullet, the horrific basement discovery, the food cellar — but the film doesn’t provide enough room for these to stand out from numerous others. I want less action, less dialogue — a Terrance Malick version of “The Road” shorn to the essentials.

(Director) Hillcoat’s one stroke of genius has nothing to do with McCarthy’s book, and happens when the narrative and expectations of adaptation have ended. It’s easy to miss, but during the final credits Hillcoat slips in a soundtrack of ambient noise. You hear a sprinkler, a creaking screen door, a dog barking, children playing. Banal things that no longer exist in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic universe. Forget literal fidelity — this is the closest the film gets to McCarthy’s mournful tone. And it’s the first time a blank credit-scroll put a lump in my throat.

If I had a nickel for everytime I heard someone say “Of course, it wasn’t as good as the book,” or for as many times as I’ve said it myself, I could probably pick up a monthly bus pass gratis.    The Campion film and The Razor’s Edge before it both underline the fact that literal is not necessarily the right way to go and that there is a right way nonetheless. 

What all three of these films seem to be dramatically underscoring, and what Hynes describes so precisely in his story of the credits in The Road,  is that adapting a book into film is really a true act of translation; in moving from one medium to another, there are no straight equivalents. You can literally do everything right and literally get the whole thing wrong.

Like a word for word translation of Hermann Hesse’s poetry from German to English, or Bashô’s haiku from Japanese to French, disaster awaits round every syntactic bend. As Hesse himself famously said: Poetry is what is lost in translation.

And when he made that statement it wasn’t specific to poetry itself; he meant any act of translation, albeit fiction, essays, drama, and more.

What is captured in the films by Campion and Byrum, in their translations, is the poetry. According to Slate, that is exactly what is missing in The Road. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen it myself.

The novel, though, is simply devastating.  And whether you go to see the film or not, or like it or not if you do, you can always pick up the book and “translate” it for yourself.

Which is as good a definition of reading as I can come up with.

– Don

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First Reads: Finding Shangri-la

It is common wisdom that we are all greatly affected by the things of our childhood. Our families, parents and siblings, our friends, our environment, where we lived, what we saw and felt and did, all played a role.

And what we read.

As a young boy, the first books I read were biographies, frequently of roger marissports heroes, such as Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Roger Maris. These books were simple extensions of what I enjoyed everyday, in “real life”; for a time, baseball was everything.

Later, I found out there were books you could read on your own that told stories. After “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and “Ivanhoe,” I discovered that there were modern books that could be read for pure enjoyment and a mania for the Hardy Boys began. It became such a jones that my father took me once a month by bus to the “big city” (Elizabeth, NJ) to visit a used bookstore, where hardcover copies could be bought for anywhere from a nickel to a quarter, depending on condition. This was before the famed pictorial Hardy Boys covers, so they were all a shabby grey/tan and brown, without dust jackets.

hardy boys two

Reading something more contemporary was just the ticket. Though hardly resembling anyone I knew in real life, it was easier to imagine myself as the plucky Joe or handsome Frank of the Hardy clan than the beleaguered David Balfour of 19th century British fiction, even if the Brothers Hardy never seemed to have to ride the bus or walk to school or frequent used bookshops to make those nickels go further.

Yes, it was slim pickins’ in teen fiction back in the days before the dinosaurs. Still, we didn’t know what we were missing because, frankly, it hadn’t arrived yet.

Time came when this love for adventure novels, as well as a rapacious appetite for comics and Mad Magazine, morphed into something else altogether. For me, that something was literature. And, fortuitously enough, I can actually place the moment. Let me explain.

To this day, I have less than a handful of pictures of myself before the age of 20. One of the pictures I do have, however, is of me in the high school cafeteria, reading a copy of “Lost Horizon.” That particular moment is indicative of a bigger moment of discovery.

lost horizon“Lost Horizon” had swept me away. It was exotic, strange, mysterious, and something else; it was a quest, a quest for meaning. When I look back on this little masterpiece, I find many of the elements of things that would become very important in my life;  an interest in Eastern culture, in a life of the mind, in things mystic and lyrical and “other.” What probably could have been simply labeled a bit of escapist fiction for a teen not much comfortable in his own skin – and, really, it is the rare teen who is – became an introduction to the world of literature not simply as entertainment but as avocation.

When we look to the great books, we are, in fact, often looking for ourselves. We measure who we are or who we want to be or who we have become against those characters we find living and breathing within those pages. When I was ten years old, did I have Joe’s moxie or Frank’s savoir faire or David Balfour’s courage? In my early teens, could I share Hugh Conway’s desire for something beyond the veil? Later, would I know Nick Carraway’s shame, Leo Bloom’s compassion, or Henry Haller’s despair?

Might I even transcend time itself, like a certain sensitive anonymous narrator, in one of the greatest novels ever written?

The answer to all these questions is yes, I did all these things and more.

My avocation became a vocation; I became a librarian and have been now for over 30 years. I literally found myself in books and have been lucky enough to be able to share that richness with others each and every day.

And it all started, more or less, right here:


– Don


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