Monday, March 30, 2020

Klingsor’s Last Summer by Hermann Hesse

A trio of turning points
The book Klingsor’s Last Summer is a collection of short fiction by German author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. The volume includes one short story, “A Child’s Heart,” and two novellas, “Klein and Wagner” and “Klingsor’s Last Summer.” All were written in 1919 and previously published in German literary journals before being published together as a collection in 1920. At about the same time, Hesse published his novel Demian, which was a real turning point in his career, and the short works included in Klingsor’s Last Summer likewise mark his transition from rather traditional romantic novels to the more avant garde psychological and spiritual literature for which he is better known today.

In the opening story, “A Child’s Heart,” a young boy experiences his first taste of transgression, guilt, and rebellion when he steals some forbidden figs from his father’s dresser drawer. Here Hesse crafts a brilliant piece of psychological realism in which he perfectly captures the emotional turmoil in the child’s mind. It calls to mind incidents from the reader’s own youth when seemingly insignificant events could escalate into causes for gut-wrenching despair and remorse. After so much boyhood sturm und drang, however, the father’s eventual response to his son’s sin feels anticlimactic and the ending seems unsatisfyingly inconclusive.

In the second entry, “Klein and Wagner,” a businessman named Klein embezzles money from his employer and abandons his wife and children, fleeing to Italy. He later admits that the reason he fled was because he had been having fantasies about murdering his family. He even has an obsessive fascination with a killer named Wagner about whom he once read a news item. The first chapter of this story is riveting, but it never lives up to its initial promise. Klein is a fine portrait of an outsider, from an author who specializes in outsiders, but as often happens in Hesse’s books this outsider is rescued by a benevolent lover who seems more fantasy than reality. The novella then morphs into a Jungian study of internal conflict, similar to Demian, with many references to sex and death. It would have been better had Hesse stuck to the less flighty and more realistic tone of the story’s initial scenes.

“Klingsor’s Last Summer” concerns an aging painter. Though only 42, Klingsor somehow knows that his death is imminent, so he sets out to live the remainder of his life to the fullest through wine, women, food, travel, and making art. Over the course of the story his values vacillate between spiritual enlightenment and pleasures of the flesh. The narrative consists primarily of interactions between the artist and his friends, in which they all relentlessly speak in metaphor. Frequent topics include whether one should fear death and whether the making of art is a pointless pursuit. Hesse throws in many references to Eastern philosophy, but there is so much competing imagery it often adds up to a confusing mess. At times, he seems to think the very mention of the word death yields instant profundity. The story contains so many odd nicknames and quirky references it often feels like a private joke that Hesse wrote for a circle of close friends. The result is that “Klingsor’s Last Summer” is the least successful entry in the collection that bears its name.

With the possible exception of “A Child’s Heart,” these three works are satisfactory but nothing remarkable by Hesse standards. Unless you are a diehard fan and Hesse completist, you’d be better off sticking with his novels.

Stories in this collection

A Child’s Heart
Klein and Wagner 
Klingsor’s Last Summer

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