Monday, December 9, 2013

Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

The scenery’s more interesting than the story
To American readers, Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse is best known for the novels he published in the latter half of his career, avant garde works which dealt with Jungian psychoanalysis and Eastern religions. Beneath the Wheel, one of his earliest works, is a book of a different sort. Originally published in 1906 under the German title of Unterm Rad, it is more in keeping stylistically with the naturalism of the late 19th century. The more traditional mode of expression, however, does not stifle Hesse’s creative voice. On the contrary, he rather excels at it. His prose is poetically descriptive and a true pleasure to read. The plot of the book, on the other hand, is less than satisfying, and the overall message of the work is not remarkably moving to a 21st-century audience.

Hans Giebenrath is an intellectual big fish in a small pond. Born and raised in a small town in rural Swabia, he has far surpassed all of his classmates in brains and determination. His scholarly achievements earn him the right to compete for a government-sponsored scholarship to a seminary school at a monastery in Maulbronn. Success doesn’t bring all sunshine and roses, however, as Hans soon realizes that taking his studies to the next level only means more hard work, and he questions whether he is up to the challenge. Hesse intended Beneath the Wheel as a severe criticism of the German educational system, which he felt robs boys of their youth and stifles their creativity in favor of rote learning and intellectual conformism.

I must confess I liked this book for all the wrong reasons. I loved Hesse’s naturalistic description of Giebenrath’s world. The small town and the monastery are both exquisitely rendered—not just the picturesque scenes of a fishing trip, an apple cider festival, or a pub crawl, but also the darker details, like his depiction of a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. The reader gets sucked into this vivid setting and finds himself longing to inhabit this fascinating world. This makes it even harder to determine the exact root of Hans’ profound discontent. One day he really loves conjugating Greek and Hebrew verbs; the next day he doesn’t. From there it’s all just a downward spiral of depression. The school masters are not sympathetic, but they’re hardly ogres either. Are they not supposed to drive their students to excel? There is more to life than texts and examinations, but after all, there are worse places for a boy to be than with his nose buried in books. The only alternative Hesse offers to scholarly pursuits is the working class life, which he paints with mixed colors. The craftsman’s life, as Hesse depicts it, is one of wholesome, honest work interspersed with the brutish gratification of animalistic desires. It doesn’t help that Hesse waters down his message by introducing other negative influences that contribute to Hans’ decline. As a protagonist, Hans is almost a nonentity in the sense that everything that occurs in the book happens to him, not by him. Though this may have been seen as a stirring coming-of-age novel 100 years ago, today’s readers will find it hard to identify with its hero or his plight.

Hesse is a great writer, and this is not a bad book by any means, but it’s certainly not one of his best. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the rather unmodernist tone of the prose, in terms of resonance and meaning this work doesn’t hold a candle to later classics like Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, or The Glass Bead Game.

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