Friday, December 6, 2019

Knulp by Hermann Hesse

The freedom of a vagabond life, but at what cost?
Knulp is a novel by German author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is a short book, about 120 pages in paperback, that can easily be read in a couple hours. The title character is a vagabond who tramps through the German countryside, depending on the kindness of others for a meal and occasional bed or working at odd jobs as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Through his travels he has made many friends, and in just about every town he visits he can count on running into past acquaintances who are happy to see him. It is also suggested that this attractive youth has no trouble with the ladies and has had his fair share of brief love affairs. All enjoy the company of Knulp, for through him they receive a breath of fresh, liberated air that allows them to vicariously live their own fantasies of wanderlust through him. As his youth slips away, however, Knulp becomes worn down by the hardships of life on the road and begins to regret the choices he’s made in life. He wonders if his many and varied adventures merely add up to a wasted life.

Anyone who has ever read Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund will immediately recognize Knulp as a prototype for Goldmund. Both lead the vagabond’s life, living for the moment, taking love where they find it, and pleasing others with their good looks and warm demeanor. Knulp, however, doesn’t carry all the religious baggage that Goldmund totes around, and Knulp’s sexual adventures are only hinted at while Goldmund’s are explicitly depicted as quasi-spiritual experiences. Of the two, Knulp is the more realistic, and the one with which it is easier for the reader to identify. One can’t help but envy Knulp’s lack of restrictions and responsibilities, but Hesse charts the character’s course with an even hand, examining the drawbacks and disappointments of the wanderer’s life as well as its benefits and joys.

One can look at Hesse’s career as being split into two phases, beginning with his “traditional” period, in which he wrote what nowadays seem relatively conventional novels built upon the tradition of German Romanticism. This is followed by his “modern” period, beginning with his novel Demian. In his more modern works, Hesse breaks away from tradition to forge his own style and incorporate themes of Eastern religion and psychoanalysis into his writings. Knulp was the last novel Hesse published before Demian, so it can be seen as the end of his “traditional” period, but the book definitely shows signs of modernism as well, both in its unconventional format—a triptych of stories from different narrators—and in its questioning of modern life. Knulp reads as if Hesse were influenced by the novels of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who often featured vagabond protagonists, as in his “Wanderer Trilogy” of Under the Autumn Star, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, and Look Back on Happiness. Hamsun is more of a brutally frank modernist, however, while Hesse does a better job of capturing the romantic appeal of wanderlust, solitude, and communion with the natural landscape, as evidenced in books like Peter Camenzind, Beneath the Wheel, Siddhartha, and the aforementioned Narcissus and Goldmund.

Having read Hesse’s later novels a long time ago, I have only recently begun to plumb the depths of his early back catalog. Though modernist works like Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game get all the attention nowadays, I am continually surprised by the emotive power and keen psychological sensitivity of Hesse’s early novels. In a previous review I called his 1910 novel Gertrude “perhaps the best of early Hesse,” but I spoke to soon because Knulp surpasses it.

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