September 15, 2014

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Sometimes you read about a character you absolutely can't stand or relate to.  But more on that later.  This book was suggested to me, and as I always like a good conversation about books, I told him I would read it.  Hermann Hesse is a pretty well known author, although I've heard said that this book is one of his more misunderstood ones.

Harry Haller is a recluse, a wolf, as he likes to call himself.  He spends his time contemplating poetry, music, books, in the privacy of his own rooms and has never learned to dance nor unleash the more animalistic side of him, despite knowing that it lies dormant within him.  When he meets a woman named Hermine, his world starts to change though.  She introduces him to dancing, pleasures and cheap thrills, and eventually to the magic theatre, where he is taken on a ride so out of the normal that he cannot tell what is real and what is not.

It was interesting, when talking with the friend who suggested this book, to discover just how different he and I viewed Harry Haller.  I viewed him as narcissistic and with a superiority complex.  He viewed him as misunderstood and socially awkward.  I guess it really is true that our own life experiences shape how we view things.  My reasoning for finding Haller narcissistic were a result of his constant moaning about how the upper classes of society didn't understand or appreciate his views on art, literature, etc.  And that dancing, etc. that he secretly was interested in was considering lower class by him and more animalistic, a different side to him.  It was as if he felt himself so superior to either group of people, that he couldn't fit in despite trying.  I just found it a real turn-off.   I also didn't like the way he discarded a certain character once finished with his development of his own character.  It's like learning much from a good book and then setting fire to it when you're done reading.  Destruction with no real purpose.

That being said, if Hesse's intent was to make me dislike Haller then he did a very good job.  The book is descriptive and evokes emotion, if not necessarily the positive kind.  But the first third of a book was a whiney drag to get through.  I got tired of Haller describing himself and his suffering of being alone and it wasn't until Hermine entered the picture that things actually got interesting.  I still didn't like the social interactions he had, but at least there were new characters that offered different perspectives.  The Magic Theatre was also intriguing and the images evoked from the writing were disturbing yet colorful and varied.  It was like having a very vivid nightmare.  I realize that I may not fully understand the emotions or worldview that Hesse was expressing through Haller, but I just couldn't connect with any part of him which made this a difficult read.  It was like looking at a piece of abstract art; it may appeal to some and I can appreciate that the artist had a lot of thoughts and emotions going into the work, but I certainly don't want to hang it in my house.

I think you can be of two minds of this book, you either like it or you don't.  For me, I can't say that I enjoyed it, other than enjoying the debate about the writing and character motivations that came out of it.

Steppenwolf
Copyright 1927
256 pages

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