Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Gertrude by Hermann Hesse

Perhaps the best of early Hesse
German author Hermann Hesse was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature largely on the basis of novels from the second half of his career, books that experimented with Eastern mysticism and psychoanalytic theory, such as Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, or The Glass Bead Game. Prior to these more modern works, however, Hesse was a writer of relatively traditional novels that stylistically straddled the line between German romanticism and impressionistic realism. Though these early novels may not be as flashy as his more avant garde writings, they still constitute a steady stream of quality work from Hesse. One of the better entries from this formative period in Hesse’s career is Gertrude, published in 1910.

The story is narrated by an aspiring composer named Kuhn. As a young man, he is involved in an accident that cripples one of his legs, forcing him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He is very self-conscious of this defect and sees it as an obstacle to forming friendships and finding love. He discovers his true calling in life is music, and after graduating from school he sets out to build a career for himself as a musician and composer. Along the way he meets his polar opposite in the form of a singer named Muoth, a brash ladies’ man who is egotistical to the point of rudeness. Opposites attract, as they say, the two become friends, and the outgoing Muoth helps find career opportunities and build confidence in the timid Kuhn. About halfway through the book, Kuhn meets Gertrude, who assists him in the writing of an important composition. Not surprisingly, she becomes the love of his life, but Hesse steers clear of writing a typical love story, and the plot never succumbs to romantic clichés.

By Hesse standards, Gertrude is not a particularly ambitious novel. He’s not trying to introduce a Buddhist message to Western readers or illustrate a complex Freudian theory. The only touch of mysticism in the story is a brief mention of theosophy, which doesn’t have any important bearing on the story. (Perhaps theosophy was the entry point through which Hesse became interested in Eastern philosophy?) I have read that Gertrude is an illustration of concepts formulated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book The Birth of Tragedy, but though I read that book a long time ago, it never popped into my head while I was reading Gertrude. As far as most of today’s readers are concerned, Gertrude will simply be a moving story of human relationships, told at an intimate scale.

Hesse’s novels often feature introspective protagonists who are involved in some intellectual pursuit, whether it be music, poetry, classical languages, or the futuristic thought exercise known as the Glass Bead Game. This shy hero then meets an outgoing, sophisticated friend who takes him under his or her wing and helps him navigate new social terrain, achieve creative fulfillment, or blossom into a more confident and spiritually realized human being. Such is the formula for Beneath the Wheel, Demian, The Glass Bead Game, and other Hesse novels, and we see it here again with Muoth and Kuhn. Whether accurate or not, one assumes Hesse identified with such protagonists, and his books will likely appeal to introspective, intellectual readers who see themselves in these characters. For such an audience, Gertrude is a satisfying read. There’s nothing here that will blow your mind or change your philosophy of life, just sympathetic characters acting out a compelling drama of art, love, and loss that rings true to life.

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