Friday, November 14, 2014

THE FAIRY TALES OF HERMANN HESSE – BOOK REVIEW



THE FAIRY TALES OF HERMANN HESSE – BOOK REVIEW

At the very outset let me confess that I have always been a diehard admirer of the works of Hermann Hesse. Whether it is Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narziss and Goldmund down to his magnum opus ‘The Glass Bead Game’ they have left their imprint and influence on me to this very day. Some time ago I did post here ‘Duality 2 – A Tribute to Hermann Hesse’ to explore the recurring theme of duality that characterises the works of Hermann Hesse, one of the greatest German novelists of the twentieth century. Throughout all of his works one can sense his attempts at bringing about a balance between the two opposing forces of asceticism and the world, so that we reach a better understanding of the world and on towards self-realization.

All that was three decades ago and I thought that I had exhausted all the books written by him at least the significant ones (my ignorance). So it was a revelation and a feeling of elation when I while browsing the books on Goodreads chanced upon the ‘The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse’. Thirty years ago I had last been transported to the magical world of Magister Ludi and ‘The Glass Bead Game’ and ever since I have been searching for that world of Hesse. It was a difficult book but once you plunged into that world there was no turning back.

And so there I was during the last ten days letting in every word of Hesse in this book – his fairy tales, sink into my psyche once again. I knew what to expect – enter once again into his fabulous world of dreams and visions, philosophy and passion. I will quote a portion of the blurb on the back cover of the book which states –

“Full of visionaries and seekers, princesses and wandering poets, his fairy tales speak to the place in our psyche that inspires us with deep spiritual longing; that compels us to leave home and inevitably return; and that harbours the greatest joys and most devastating wounds of our heart.”

Jack Zipes’s wonderful English translation does not ever make you feel that you have missed out on any of Hesse’s original thought process in the original German. In his exhaustive and wonderful Introduction Zipes has this to say –

“To know Hermann Hesse’s fairy tales is to know the trauma, doubts, and dreams of the artist as a young man in Germany at the beginning of a tumultuous century. Like many other European writers, Hesse perceived the events around him – the rapid advance of technology, the rise of materialism, the world wars, the revolutions, and the economic inflations and depressions – as indicative of the decline of Western Civilization. It was through art, especially the fairy tale that Hesse sought to contend with what he perceived to be the sinister threat of science and commercialism.”

Not to be misled by the term ‘Fairy Tale’ which to our understanding has always been signified by ‘And they lived happily ever after’, Hesse’s fairy tales are either tragic or open ended leaving it to us to contemplate and change the conditions that had brought about such a closure.  Hesse uses the fairy tale narrative effectively of blending the world of imagination and symbolism with reality and allowing the reader to go beyond and grasp the essence of living. In the process he weaves a magical world and sometimes takes us back into the world of Harry Haller in the Magic Theatre a place where he experiences the fantasies that exist in his mind in the book ‘Steppenwolf’ or the world of Emil Sinclair in ‘Demian’ whose entire existence can be summarized as a struggle between two worlds: the show world of illusion (related to the Hindu concept of maya) and the real world, the world of spiritual truth accompanied and prompted by his mysterious classmate 'Max Demian', he detaches from and revolts against the superficial ideals of the world of appearances and eventually awakens into a realization of self. In the story ‘If the War Continues’, the protagonist is Emil Sinclair, a writer. One can recall that Hesse wrote ‘Demian’ under the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair.

The book is more like a compendium of all the themes that Hesse covers in his novels and reflections of his own life beliefs and convictions. There is something mystical, magical about the way he weaves these short stories. One can categorize the stories into distinct groups based on the dilemmas encountered by the individual, society and the world at large.

While in the stories ‘The Dwarf’, ‘Shadow Play’, and “Dr.Knoegle’s End’ the sensitive and harmless protagonists are crushed by narrow minded people, in ‘The Poet’, ‘Flute Dream’, ‘Forest Dweller’ and ‘The Painter’ Hesse portrays their realization through a search for attainment of their full potential. Hesse’s pacifism and the search for an utopian order in this world comes out strongly in- ‘A Dream about the Gods’, ‘Strange News from Another Planet’, ‘If the War Continues’, ‘The European’ and ‘The Empire’.
The translator in his Introduction highlights Hesse’s that “Nationalism is the most dangerous force because it can inspire people to obsessively seek power and become caught up in war for war’s sake”.

Each and every one of the twenty two stories in this book have their own appeal as Hesse takes us on a journey through his world of magical, sometimes mystical world of romantic symbolism and idealism.

Jack Zipes the translator sums up his introduction – “Hesse’s best tales are filled with a keen sense of longing for a home that is utopian counterpart to the horrors we continue to witness in our present day and age”.

Now I feel happy that I have completed all of Hesse’s work, or have I? I hope there are some more undiscovered ones,


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