Friday, January 22, 2016

Rosshalde by Hermann Hesse

Bleak house
Johann Veraguth is a painter who has achieved world-wide fame and is hailed by his nation as one of their greats. His success allows him to purchase an 8-acre estate named Rosshalde, which he renovates into a little enclave of artistic and domestic bliss, complete with lush gardens, a lake for swimming, and a studio in which to engage in the act of creation undisturbed. After ten years in this idyllic home, however, a sadness rules over the picturesque grounds. Veraguth and his wife no longer live as man and wife. She occupies the manor house, while he lives in his painting studio. Their relations are icy but cordial; the one bond that unites them is their love for their 8-year-old son Pierre, who moves freely between the two camps. When Otto Burkhardt, a former classmate of Veraguth’s, arrives for a visit, he is shocked by the depressing state in which he finds his old friend. He questions how the artist can go on living like this and advises him to make a clean break with his wife, even if it means giving up his young son. Burkhardt, who lives in India, invites the painter to leave Rosshalde and join him in the East.

Rosshalde, originally published in 1914, is a semi-autobiographical novel from German/Swiss author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. After achieving literary fame, Hesse, like Veraguth, settled down with his wife and kids at a lakeside retreat. Eventually his marriage deteriorated, and he departed for a trip to Asia. When he returned, he began writing most of the novels for which he is famous among English-language readers—modern, expressionistic works like Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, or The Glass Bead Game that are loaded with Freudian, Jungian, and Buddhist imagery. I enjoy Hesse’s later works—particularly Steppenwolf—but I also appreciate his earlier works like Beneath the Wheel, that depict everyday German life in a style that straddles the line between romanticism and realism. Rosshalde falls into this latter category.

At first I was quite taken with the novel. The natural beauty and contemplative atmosphere of the Rosshalde estate is intoxicating, and Hesse does a great job of portraying the life of a painter, albeit an uncommonly wealthy one. His transcriptions of human emotion are authentic and moving. The dark, brooding relationship that exists between the estranged couple initially presents a perplexing mystery waiting to be solved. The problem is, the novel doesn’t really go anywhere from there. The whole thing feels like a foregone conclusion. Ultimately the plot hinges on the choice Veraguth has to make, but circumstances end up making that choice for him. It’s all quite sad and pathetic, but not particularly compelling. The further the narrative progresses (or fails to progress) the less interesting it becomes.

Rosshalde may not be one of Hesse’s masterpieces, but it still has its charms. Fans of Hesse who have read all the major works might want to give this quiet novel a try. If nothing else, the autobiographical elements provide some insight into the author’s life.
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