Friday, August 9, 2019

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse

A promising debut
Peter Camenzind, the debut novel of Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse, was originally published in 1904. It is a coming-of-age story about a young man’s search for love, happiness, and a purpose to his life. At this early stage in Hesse’s career, his writing clearly shows the influence of German romanticism. The novel’s title character and protagonist, for example, grows up in a scene right out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting—an alpine village surrounded by rugged and majestic mountains beset by brutal storms and avalanches. While building upon the literary tradition of writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, however, this is no Sorrows of Young Werther, as Hesse avoids romantic excesses and ventures toward the more modernist style that would characterize his later and better-known works.

In this first novel one will recognize many elements and themes common to Hesse’s later works. Though Peter is atypical of Hesse’s heroes in that he possesses a robust and powerful physique, he is intellectually inclined and has no interest in farm or factory work. He goes off to a university (reminiscent of the boarding school in Beneath the Wheel or the cloister school in Narcissus and Goldmund) where he develops an enthusiasm for scholarly pursuits. As is often the case with Hesse protagonists, Peter follows an artistic calling, but instead of music (as in Gertrude) or painting (as in Rosshalde), Peter’s chosen vocation is literature. Among his classmates he is an outsider, but he forms one very strong and intense male friendship (see Beneath the Wheel, Demian, The Glass Bead Game, and others). When that friendship is taken away from him (Beneath the Wheel again), Peter becomes disillusioned with life and decides to wander the countryside, looking for some sort of spiritual epiphany (much like Siddhartha or Goldmund).

Love is a common theme throughout the book, but not necessarily romantic love. Peter searches for a love that will make life worthwhile. This first manifests itself in love for woman, at which Peter is not very successful. Alcoholism is another recurring theme in the book, as Peter continually turns to drink as a distraction from the lack of love and meaning in his life. As the book progresses, however, Peter begins to realize that the one love in his life that he could always count on is his love for nature. While nature provides him with a source of spiritual contentment, he realizes that he will never be truly happy until he develops a love for humanity. Peter’s spiritual quest is very engaging, and Hesse imparts some valid wisdom, but the lifestyle which ultimately brings Peter contentment will probably strike many readers as not very appealing.

Hesse’s novels often feature intelligent, sensitive introverts who feel like outsiders in society. I suspect that those who read his books, myself included, tend to be those who see themselves in a similar light. Such readers will easily be seduced by the monastic or nomadic lifestyles of Hesse’s heroes. How wonderful it would be to devote oneself to study in the secluded libraries of a utopian center of learning, or wander the roads of Europe on foot, sleeping in fragrant meadows and taking life as it comes. By no means am I being facetious, for this is exactly what I enjoy about Hesse’s novels. His characters have the time to philosophize and self-actualize, while many of us do not. This only proves that the alienation and disconnect that Hesse felt with modern society is still alive and well today. By Hesse standards, Peter Camenzind is a good novel, not great, but it is an admirable start to what would prove to be an illustrious literary career.
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