As a young writer, Hesse was heavily influenced by the German Romanticist movement. This influence is reflected in the style of his earliest novels, which will strike today’s readers as rather conventionally told narratives of German life. As time progressed, however, Hesse’s writings became more modernist and avant garde, incorporating themes related to his interest in Eastern religion and his personal association with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It is these later, more experimental works, beginning with Demian (1919) that are now generally seen as Hesse’s essential works. In general, however, his earlier, more traditional novels are also quite good for their genre.
Listed below are the thirteen books by Hesse that Old Books by Dead Guys has reviewed. This is not a complete list of Hesse’s fictional works, but rather an ample sampling of the titles English-language readers are most likely to encounter in their local used bookstore. Click on the titles to read the full reviews.
Peter Camenzind (1904) - 3.5 stars
Hesse’s promising debut novel is a coming-of-age story about one young man’s search for love, happiness, and the meaning of life. The narrative is firmly grounded in the Romantic tradition of German writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but already in this first book Hesse starts to show his individual style. Peter Camenzind exhibits many elements and themes common to Hesse’s later works, most notably its sensitive, introverted protagonist who feels like an outsider in modern society.
Beneath the Wheel (1906) - 3 stars
A young boy, the most promising student in his rural town, is sent off to a seminary school where he flounders in the more competitive educational environment. Hesse intended this novel as a severe criticism of the German educational system, which he felt robbed boys of their youth and stifled their creativity in favor of rote learning and intellectual conformism. I liked this book for all the wrong reasons: Hesse’s naturalistic depictions of the monastery and its rural environs is a picturesque world I would want to live in.
Gertrude (1910) - 4 stars
One of the better works of Hesse’s earlier years, this novel stylistically straddles the line between German romanticism and impressionistic realism. An aspiring composer named Kuhn meets two people who change his life: a brash singer named Muoth who becomes his unlikely best friend, and the title character, with whom he falls in love. This is not a particularly innovative or ambitious novel by Hesse standards, but it is a compelling drama of art, love, and loss that rings true to life.
Rosshalde (1914) - 3 stars
This semi-autobiographical novel charts the deterioration of a marriage between a celebrated painter and his wife who live on an idyllic estate named Rosshalde. Hesse’s depictions of human emotion are authentic and moving, but the plot doesn’t really head anywhere except to a foregone conclusion, which just feels depressing and not remarkably compelling. This one is best reserved for only diehard Hesse fans.
Knulp (1915) - 4.5 stars
The title character in this brief novel is a lovable vagabond who tramps through the German countryside, relying on the kindness of strangers and living life one day at a time. This romantic life of wanderlust and adventure begins to wear on Knulp, however, as he grows older and starts to regret the choices he’s made in life. This is the best of Hesse’s earlier romantic novels, and one that marks his turning point into a more modernist style.
Demian (1919) - 3 stars
This is generally considered the jumping off point for Hesse’s later and greater works. Hesse introduces themes and imagery from the world of Jungian psychoanalysis into this coming-of-age story, resulting in the relating of many dreams and mystical visions. Demian may have been groundbreaking for its time, but I found it deeply flawed. Hesse fantasizes about a secret elitist brotherhood of misfits just waiting to accept intellectuals who don’t fit in, which comes across a bit juvenile and pretentious.
Siddhartha (1922) - 4 stars
Many novels can be described as “one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment,” but probably none more appropriately than this one. The story is set around 500 BC in India. Siddhartha is the son of a Hindu Brahmin who turns his back on his father’s teachings, renounces earthly possessions, and sets out on the road to find his own path to the meaning of life. Despite the title and the book’s setting, the protagonist is not Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), but rather another spiritual quester who meets the Buddha and draws inspiration from him.
Steppenwolf (1927) - 4.5 stars
Hesse’s best, in my opinion. Harry Haller envisions himself as having a dual personality. His inability to reconcile the human and animal halves of his nature leaves him depressed and filled with revulsion for his pointless, insignificant life, until he meets a mysterious woman who guides him on a bizarre psychoanalytic tour of his own mind. Hesse liberally departs from realism, using dreams and hallucinations to craft something that might be described as a stream-of-subconsciousness narrative. This is a fearlessly original work that dispenses timeless wisdom for the modern soul.
Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) - 4 stars
Set vaguely in the Middle Ages, this novel tells the story of the friendship between two monks who meet in a monastery. Their contrasting natures of philosopher (Narcissus) and artist (Goldmund) illustrate the dichotomy between pious intellectualism and the pleasures of the flesh, a recurring theme in Hesse’s work. The novel’s lofty themes are grounded in an earthy realism as the story focuses mostly on Goldmund’s spiritual quest to reconcile the flesh with the spirit.
The Journey to the East (1932) - 1.5 stars
This brief book feel less like a novel than a rough sketch of one. The narrator tells of his membership in a mysterious, mystical organization called the League, and a historic Eastward pilgrimage they made to find enlightenment. Hesse treats the work like a kitchen sink in which to throw all manner of vague and trippy imagery. Many find this book profound, but I didn’t care much for it at all. Like a sketch quickly tossed off by Picasso, it has value in that it was created by a master, but it doesn’t compare to his masterpieces.
The Glass Bead Game (1943) - 3.5 stars
Also known by the title Magister Ludi, this is a science fiction novel set in a utopian future. Mankind’s intellectual heritage is safeguarded by a secular priesthood who practice the art of the Glass Bead Game as a form of cerebral meditation. The world Hesse has created here is fascinating, but the story that plays out there is achingly slow and tediously repetitive. Hesse’s final novel is his quintessential book, summing up his life’s work, but that doesn’t mean it’s his best piece of writing.
Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920) - 3.5 stars
This volume includes one short story, “A Child’s Heart,” and two novellas, “Klein and Wagner” and “Klingsor’s Last Summer.” Published about the same time as Demian, these short works also mark the transition from his rather traditional romantic novels to his more avant garde psychological and spiritual literature. These are fine works but nothing that stands out as among Hesse’s best writings.
Stories of Five Decades (1972) - 4 stars
This collection contains 23 short stories by Hesse that were originally published from 1899 to 1948. The well-selected contents 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. Not every story is a winner, but overall the volume provides a panoramic overview of Hesse’s breadth of interests and recurring themes.