Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Stories of Five Decades by Hermann Hesse

A diverse array of thought-provoking short fiction
To English-language readers, German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse is primarily known as a novelist, but he was also a prolific poet and writer of short stories. Over the course of his career, the Nobel laureate published several volumes of short stories, but only a sampling of his short fiction has been published in English translation in volumes such as Klingsor’s Last Summer, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, and Stories of Five Decades. The latter collection, first published in 1972, contains 23 stories translated by Ralph Mannheim, perhaps the 20th century’s most acclaimed translator of German literature. As the title indicates, the selections in Stories of Five Decades cover a broad time span, including works originally published from 1899 to 1948.

Whether written in the Romantic style of his early career or the more modernist style of his later works, fans of Hesse’s novels will feel right at home in the introspective atmosphere of these stories. Hesse often sets his fiction in idyllic, almost monastic settings, where his protagonists are free to devote themselves to music, poetry, or nature. His interests in Jungian psychology and Eastern mysticism often express themselves in trippy dream sequences and fantastical events. Conflict, when it occurs, is less due to outside forces than to interior turmoil within the mind, or between two opposing minds. “Inside and Outside,” for example, follows the relationship between two educated friends, one devoted to science and the other to magic. The later story “Edmund” continues the theme with a professor and student who study world religions, one as an objective observer of ceremony and ritual, the other as a willing participant. In “Dream Journeys,” a frustrated writer struggles to find a medium between literature and dreams, while in “Robert Aghion,” an English missionary weighs Christian and pagan beliefs.

Hesse frequently expresses a disdain for the modern world and its arts. He harkens back fondly to the Romantic Era, the Middle Ages, and ancient times. Today’s artists and writers, in Hesse’s view, futilely struggle to achieve the heights of the “great poets” of the past. The modern world is a realm of violence, noise, and insanity that only deserves to be lamented or satirized. In “An Evening with Dr. Faust,” the title character devises a means of hearing sounds from the future, only to find that his future (our present) is chaos and madness. The 1907 story “The Wolf” is a realistic look at a wolf’s struggle for survival in a harsh world, man being its greatest adversary. Here Hesse celebrates primordial nature while expressing regret over dubious “civilization.” In his 1927 story, “Harry, the Steppenwolf,” a companion piece to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, a wolf held captive in a zoo becomes an anthropomorphic symbol of nonconformity and dissent. Other stories that express reservations about modernity are “The City,” a wonderful biography of a fictional city that points out the transitory insignificance of mankind, and “Walter Kömpff,” in which the title character finds his life confined by the strictures of a capitalist society.

The 23 entries in this collection cover a fascinating array of diverse subjects and styles, including realistic scenes of German life, historical fiction, mythic fairy tales, and hints of science fiction. Some stories come across as incomplete sketches, a few feel like scenes pulled out of context, and a couple might be considered failed experiments. Nevertheless, fans of Hesse’s novels will enjoy this collection. The overall effect is like paging through the sketchbook of a master artist. The well-selected contents give the reader an impressive panoramic view of the author’s wide breadth of interests and prodigious depth of talent.

Stories in this collection

The Island Dream
Incipit vita nova
To Frau Gertrud
November Night
The Marble Works
The Latin Scholar
The Wolf
Walter Kömpff
The Field Devil
Chagrin d’Amour
A Man by the Name of Ziegler
The Homecoming
The City
Robert Aghion
The Cyclone
From the Childhood of Saint Francis of Assisi
Inside and Outside
Dream Journeys
Harry, the Steppenwolf
An Evening with Dr. Faust
The Interrupted Class

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