Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

One-line summary: A man who believes he is a wolf inside struggles to find himself -- yeah, it's one of those novels.

This is not a book about a furry

Published in 1927 (in German), 256 pages

Harry Haller is a sad and lonely figure, a reclusive intellectual for whom life holds no joy. He struggles to reconcile the wild primeval wolf and the rational man within himself without surrendering to the bourgeois values he despises. His life changes dramatically when he meets a woman who is his opposite, the carefree and elusive Hermine. The tale of the Steppenwolf culminates in the surreal Magic Theater—for mad men only.

Steppenwolf is Hesse's best-known and most autobiographical work. With its blend of Eastern mysticism and Western culture, it is one of literature's most poetic evocations of the soul's journey to liberation. Originally published in English in 1929, the novel';s wisdom continues to speak to our souls and marks it as a classic of modern literature.

Crossposted to bookish and books1001.

An 80s-style sci-fi cover makes this book seem much more titillating than it is

Hermann Hesse was a great German writer, poet, and intellectual who wrote deep, spiritual books which became enormously popular in the counterculture movement in the 1960s.

I can believe it. Hesse's prose probably goes down a lot better with a bong.

Steppenwolf falls into the category that several of the books I've read for books1001 do: I can recognize it as the intellectual and literary tour de force that it is, and still I found it dull, plodding, and tedious, with a character for whom I felt very little sympathy. Also, I had the feeling that it was not well translated into English (particularly a problem given that there was a fair amount of poetry). (Hmm. Maybe I should just avoid books with "Steppe" in the title.)

Steppenwolf is about a man, Harry Haller, who believes himself to be a "wolf of the Steppes" inside. He despises the bourgeois ways of society around him, and yet finds himself attracted to it, unable to completely separate himself from it. As he muses to himself, his wolfen nature does not lead him to truly live on the fringes of society among criminals and "extraordinary characters"; no, he rents rooms in nice little middle-class houses and wonders how the bourgeoisie can be happy in their bourgeois homes with their bourgeois lives.

One evening, he comes across a sign advertising a Magic Theater, "For Madmen Only!" He is given a pamphlet, which he takes home, and finds that it seems to describe none other than himself:


There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes, and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the Steppes. Clever men might argue the point whether he truly was a wolf, whether, that is, he had been changed, before birth perhaps, from a wolf into a human being, or had been given the soul of a wolf, though born as a human being; or whether, on the other hand, this belief that he was a wolf was no more than a fancy or a disease of his.

This leads him to a series of encounters with the mysterious Hermine (no, there's no 'o' -- stop getting excited, Harry Potter fans), the beautiful Maria, a lot of sex (described about as erotically as German novels in 1927 could get away with), and finally, a visit to the Magic Theater which is like a grown-up's journey through the Looking Glass.

In a 1961 preface to the book, Hesse says (after basically endorsing the Death of the Author) that "of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood"; partly, he suggests, because it was "written when I was fifty years old and dealing, as it does, with the problems of that age, often fell into the hands of very young readers."

Hesse observes that many readers identified with Harry, the Steppenwolf, but missed the point. I think Hesse felt that they saw mostly the tragedy and ignored the redemptive message in the end, but I can certainly see young men of a certain type saying: "Yeah, man -- that's me! I'm a lone wolf! I'm the Steppenwolf! AAWWOOOOOOOO!"

Which would be very much missing the point, because Harry Haller isn't some kind of rebel, a Nietzschian Superman. He's miserable. He's pressing his nose up against the windows of those bourgeoisie little houses from the outside and wondering why he's an outsider looking in, not hating them for some perceived inferiority.

This book resonated with me at times, and had some profound things to say, and the ending almost redeemed it. But ye gads is Harry an angsty whiner. It's hard to refrain from snarking on what's basically a book about a middle-aged middle-class dude bored and dissatisfied with life who is shaken from his melancholy rut and given a new sense of perspective by banging hot younger chicks.

Sorry. I am trying to reconcile the dual nature of my soul: though I am a book reviewer and a human being, in reality I am a Snarker of the Internets.

Steppenwolf has a lot of things to say about living within yet apart from society and finding enjoyment where you can in life, as well as some commentary on war and patriotism. And, my favorite part comes at the very end, where Harry is basically told that life is for living and that dumbass homeboy needs to get a sense of humor:

"You would be ready, no doubt, to mortify and scourge yourself for centuries altogether. Wouldn't you?"

"Oh, yes, ready with all my heart," I cried in my misery.

"Of course! When it's a question of anything stupid and pathetic and devoid of humor or wit, you're the man, you tragedian. Well, I am not. I don't care a fig for all your romantics of atonement. You wanted to be executed and to have your head chopped off, you lunatic! For this imbecile idea you would suffer death ten times over. You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live. The devil, but you shall live!"

You know this is the kind of book Serious Literary People Take Seriously because they produce diagrams like this:

So, profound novel of spiritual actualization and self-discovery, or wanky manifesto for Otherkin who miss the point? You be the judge.

If the Book Requires a Bong Hit, the Movie Requires Hard Liquor

Yes, there was a 1974 film. What were they thinking? Even Max von Sydow couldn't save this stinker. As Wikipedia notes:
A "marketing disaster" [1] followed, this included the colour of the prints coming out incorrectly. The film has remained little seen.

No wonder. Yes, you can stream it from Netflix. Yes, I did. The bad coloring was the least of its problems. I'll give it this: in its sequential details, it follows the book fairly closely. In implementation, it's a technicolor stream of vomit that misses every point the book was making. The director's desire to make a "Jungian film" and the Monty Pythonesque animation sequences turned the movie into a confusing head-trip that I can't imagine making sense to anyone who hasn't read the book. (Anyone who has read the book will be able to hear Hermann Hesse spinning in his grave.)

Verdict: It's hard for me to properly evaluate this one, it really is. I've said a lot of less-than-laudatory things about this book, and I didn't honestly find it a particularly enjoyable read, nor was it moving or life-changing, but it was... interesting, and I can imagine someone who identifies with Harry Haller a little bit more feeling that it speaks to them. And Hesse really is one of those writers you should read before you die. So I'd hate to think that my rather acerbic review would discourage someone else from reading it: if you find the description interesting, then you probably should read it.

That said, my final verdict is still: Wanker!

This was my fifth review for the books1001 challenge. Let us see what the Random Number Generator assigns me next...
Tags: books, books1001, hermann hesse, literary, reviews

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