The Glass Bead Game. Herman Hesse. 1943. (Vintage Classics, 2000)
Writing in any form should always be challenging (though perhaps less so than this blog would make seem), but maintaining the concentration to produce a novel during a World War is presumably a wholly different kettle of fish. The fact that Hermann Hesse, ensconced in the relative tranquillity of neutral Switzerland for the duration of the second global conflict of the 20th century, might have dreamt of utopian futures is completely understandable given the destruction of not only human life, but also the artistic and cultural inheritance of central Europe taking place in the countries around his adopted homeland. That he used the Glass Bead Game to dissemble a flawed paradise rather than posit an unblemished plan for a better tomorrow shows however that Hesse’s literary and critical skills maintained the ability to rise about his immediate historical context and see a different and bigger picture, rather than a narrow band coloured by Nazism and warfare. Counterintuitively there is a lovely optimism in Hesse’s refusal to take us to an idealised future but instead to continue his investigation of the human quest for knowledge begun elsewhere in his canon in works such as Siddhartha. It’s simply impossible to read Hesse’s last work and maintain a negative view of the human race. Those peopling the Glass Bead Game are never perfect but are almost uniformly well-meaning and where humanity falls short of its abilities the culprit is always a lesser sin such as ignorance or over-confidence rather than any genuine manifestation of malice. Whilst ideas of good and evil are not central to the novel, the author’s unspoken yet tangible stance makes for a subtly and refreshingly uplifting read.
On the other hand, the nature of the world we find ourselves in also self-consciously lays bare the potential downside to Hesse’s positivity, and to my mind prevents this intriguing tale from soaring to the heights of a true classic. The world of The Glass Bead Game is painfully dull. The fact that this is a deliberate conceit on the author’s part doesn’t prevent it impacting on our enjoyment of the story. The debate about what gives meaning to an individual’s life, and whether the quest for cultural and intellectual pursuits can by itself bring definition to anywhere near the same degree as genuine suffering, is of course stimulating and Hesse presents both sides with precision, tact and wit. However, the fact that the landscapes presented to us are so one-dimensional is deeply problematic. The narrative exists in a sexless, airless vacuum devoid of tension or excitement, which on the one hand proves that any ahistorical, apolitical utopian society would be untenably mundane, but conversely is stifling within minutes of entering into it. In a novella this might perhaps be sustainable; in a full-blown novel it’s a genuine obstacle to enjoyment.
By the same token, whilst marooned in an environment of sterile placidity, we remain permanently welded to a likeable yet undeniably bland main character. Joseph Knecht is too perfect to inspire any sort of lasting place in the memory, regardless of his supposed multiple crises of faith throughout his life span. As a parody of multiple genres, amongst them overtly flattering biography and the bildungsroman of the prodigy, the manipulation of Knecht’s life story is an expert display of craftsmanship. Again though, this isn’t enough for us to span the ocean that divides us from a real empathy with our hero. It’s not merely that he has none of the regular drivers of a normal human being, be they sexual, financial, professional or otherwise. Nor is the banality of the few personal relationships he manages to maintain the real issue, though the thoroughly wet Tegularius and the would-be anti-Knecht Designori allow little room for interaction of the non-didactic variety. Really it’s the ease with which all this is accepted. The philosophical questions which Knecht wrestles with and which tempt him to stray from the accepted path, are meant to be accepted as manifestations of a deep and long-running battle for his soul but thanks to his cool detachment these chasms register as nothing more than a slight existential ennui. There is of course still half a novel for these conflicts to bear fruit, but the otherworldly, saintly nature of our protagonist suggests they will be resolved without involved philosophical or narrative satisfaction for anyone but Knecht himself.
That might seem damning but more than a few shafts of light persist. From the outset, as suggested above, the Glass Bead Game is steeped in the spiritual, well-meaning humanism of the author. Hesse imparts a wonderful love of learning, especially music throughout, yet never strays into the proximity of preachiness. It’s nothing less than a pleasant and wholesome read throughout. Moreover, the construction of the work, being two parts narrative of Knecht life, and one part Knecht’s own writings, leaves a lot of room for a change of pace, style and characterisation as we move into the latter pages. Indeed, it’s probable that these less straightforward structures might produce the bigger shift in HWTR grades, but it’s early in the experiment, and time will tell. In the meantime, we can only join our favourite Castalian in wondering how far we can subsist on wholesomeness alone.
1/2 Way Rating: 6/10 Final Rating: 6/10