Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse

A vaguely-described game that symbolizes all human knowledge is the device for a boring fictional future biography.

The Glass Bead Game

Picador, 1943, 558 pages

Set in the 23rd century, The Glass Bead Game is the story of Joseph Knecht, who has been raised in Castalia, which has provided for the intellectual elite to grow and flourish.

Since childhood, Knecht has been consumed with mastering the Glass Bead Game, which requires a synthesis of aesthetics and scientific arts, such as mathematics, music, logic, and philosophy, which he achieves in adulthood, becoming a Magister Ludi (Master of the Game).

I love the German language (what little I remember of it). But my experiences with German literature, at least in translation, have not been salutary. I bounced off Thomas Mann, and this is my second attempt with Hermann Hesse. I found Steppenwolf to be interesting and bizarre, but mostly full of pretentious wankery, and The Glass Bead Game, which is ostensibly a future biography of the master of an intriguing game and intellectual order, was a tedious slog of boredom which I finished only out of a completionist desire to mark it off on my checklist of finished books.

Supposedly set in the 23rd century, this book is in no way science fiction. The world described shows no evidence of advanced technology or social advancement - it is essentially our world, but with in an alternate history in which an academic order known as the Castalia coexists with the Catholic Church and produces cloistered ivory tower philosophers and intellectuals who engage in abstruse dialectics and subtle social positioning for reasons that only matter to the internal mental states of the participants. The "glass bead game" after which the book is named is really just a plot device to seed the premise of the book - inasmuch as the book has a plot, which it doesn't, really.

The main character is a man named Joseph Knecht, and most of the book is a fictional future biography of Knecht, who (in the 23rd century) became revered as as the Magister Ludi of the glass bead game and Castalia. Following his progression from gifted young student to Magister Ludi, who then steps down from his exalted position, over the opposition of the Castalia, The Glass Bead game might be read as a bildungsroman, though I have read elsewhere that it's actually more of a parody of a bildungsroman. I can see how this book could be satirizing the form of the bildungsroman, but as far as wit or humor, there was none evident to me. The lengthy, detailed accounts of Knecht's upbringing, his interactions with fellow students, teachers, and mentees, who engage in long-winded philosophical exchanges with him, and his decision to eventually retire as Magister Ludi, when there is no mechanism or precedent for a Magister Ludi to retire.

Castalia, as described in the book, is the very epitome of an ivory tower - academics go to Castalia, are supported by taxes from the outside world, and spend all their time pondering heavy thoughts or playing the glass bead game. Knecht is eventually swayed by arguments with a schoolmate from his younger days, and a Catholic clergyman later in life, that Castalians should not withdraw from the world, but use their intellectual gifts for the benefit of others.

Very deep and intellectual. Also very, very boring.

As a casual, lapsed go player, who loved the novel The Master of Go, I was more interested in the glass bead game itself. Hesse must have been inspired in part by go when he created this fictional game, but the glass bead game is only described abstractly - like go, it is a "lifestyle" game for those who truly dedicated themselves to its mastery, and it embodies everything from philosophy to mathematics, and music. The actual rules and mechanics of the game are never described, though, and despite being referenced throughout the book, in its relationship to Castalia and the outside world, the game really doesn't have much to do with the story.

The biography of Joseph Knecht ends abruptly, and the latter part of the book contains several poems and stories supposedly written by the fictional protagonist. The stories are alternative incarnations of Knecht, written as if he had been born as a prehistoric shaman, an early Christian hermit, and an Indian prince.

All of this was very detailed, thoughtful, literary, and intellectual. And very, very boring.

I'm sure I missed a lot of meaning, but The Glass Bead Game just disappointed me on every level. I can recognize the literary merit of the work. But as far as enjoying it or ever wanting to revisit it, I find that very unlikely.

Rating: 5/10

Also by Hermann Hesse: My review of Steppenwolf.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, hermann hesse, literary, reviews

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