Friday, April 28, 2017

Steppenwolf

My paperback cover -- terrible, isn't it?
Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

In my endeavor to appreciate Hesse, I've now read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.  I'm working my way up to The Glass Bead Game.  Of course, this novel is indelibly and vaguely associated with 70s late-hippie music in my brain, as I'm sure it is for most people my age, but I never really knew what 'steppenwolf' was supposed to mean in English.  It turns out to be very simple: wolf of the steppes, or as we'd say, a lone wolf.  The title could be rendered as Lone Wolf and that would work.  (For some reason, Wikipedia claims that a wolf of the steppes is a coyote, but it isn't and that doesn't work at all.  My advice is not to try to think of this as Coyote.  No.)

Harry Haller, mid-50s, thinks of himself as a double-natured being.  One side of him is an intellectual, high-culture sort of man, and the other is a wild and bloodthirsty lone wolf, always on the move and never at home.  Both sides of Harry despise the bourgeois society around him as frivolous and shallow, and he spends his life alone, reading, writing articles, and living in squalor.   At the same time, he can't resist stopping occasionally to appreciate the housewifely virtues of cleanliness, comfort, and good food, but he thinks of them as alien and weak.

Now this cover I like.
Harry finds a little book that is a treatise on the steppenwolf nature that tells him how wrong he is to believe that he (and only he) has just two natures; all people are multi-sided and complex.  He doesn't like to hear that, and goes to visit an old professor of his but ruins the visit by shouting and ripping up a treasured portrait of Goethe (there is a lot about Goethe).  Harry plans to kill himself but winds up in a dance hall, to his own shock, and meets a woman who promises to change his life.  She teaches him the pleasures of bourgeois life (dancing!  socializing!  romance!) and introduces him to the mysterious Pablo, who dispenses drugs and mad dreams.  Deep in a dreamworld, Harry lives out his fantasies, and it's unclear just how real they are.

It's a pretty strange novel.  I kind of enjoyed it.  I liked that Harry is portrayed as wrong in his scorn for plain middle-class life, good housekeeping, and enjoying dancing.  I won't claim to have understood it well; I'd probably need a second read and a college course in Hesse before I could do that.


3 comments:

cleopatra said...

Okay, I just laughed my way through your review and I'm not sure that's what Hesse intended (or you, for that matter!) LOL! I haven't read any Hesse and your review makes me want to read him and avoid him at the same time. Congratulations! I didn't think it possible. LOL! ;-)

Jean said...

You know, I didn't mean for it to be funny, but reading it now....yeah, it is pretty funny. Ha!

Lory said...

I like Hesse a lot, but I don't think I've read Steppenwolf (and I'm not sure I want to now!) However, your review inspired me to check out what ebooks were available from the library and I found a lovely book of translations from his poetry, Seasons of the Soul. Most of the poems had not yet been translated into English (the book came out in 2011 I think). Recommended if you'd to sample more Hesse in a very different vein.