‘Narziss and Goldmund’ by Hermann Hesse

Hesse_Narziss-and-Goldmund-fcXC-700pxNarziss and Goldmund was originally published as Narziß und Goldmund in 1930. The translation I read was by Geoffrey Dunlop and was originally published in 1932 as Death and the Lover. The Penguin edition was first published in 1971.

I had a rocky ride reading this book; after about fifty pages I wanted to throw it to one side with contempt, I continued for a while then it annoyed me for another reason, but I continued, and by the time I finished it I was enjoying the story and found it difficult to see why the beginning annoyed me quite so much.

The story has a simple beginning: Narziss is a scholarly type who is well-suited to the monastic life, he’s still quite young when the story begins and is yet to take his vows. Goldmund is brought to the monastery, Mariabronn, one day by his father. Although he makes friends easily, he only becomes true friends with Narziss – opposites seem to attract.

Narziss was dark and thin of face, and Goldmund open and radiant as a flower. Narziss was a thinker and anatomiser, Goldmund a dreamer and a child. Yet things common to both could bridge these differences. Both were knightly and delicate; both set apart by visible signs from their fellows, since both had received the particular admonishment of fate.

Narziss is attracted to Goldmund’s free spirit and Goldmund idolises Narziss’s piety and scholarship. Having grown up in such an environment Goldmund feels that it is his destiny to become a monk and follow the path set out for him. But Narziss, who has an almost supernatural ability to look into people’s inner lives, tries to convince Goldmund that the monastic life is not the best course to take. Goldmund, however, continues to struggle to emulate Narziss. One night some of the boys escape to the village and Goldmund feels the pull of the world through the enticements of an attractive maid. Narziss tries to convince Goldmund that there is nothing wrong with his feelings and that he should not keep trying to be like Narziss, but should instead try to ‘know himself’. In one of their intense conversations Narziss describes the differences in their natures:

Men of dreams, the lovers and the poets, are better in most things than the men of my sort; the men of intellect. You take your being from your mothers. You live to the full: it is given you to love with your whole strength, to know and taste the whole of life. We thinkers, though often we seem to rule you, cannot live with half your joy and full reality. Ours is a thin and arid life, but the fullness of being is yours; yours the sap of the fruit, the garden of lovers, the joyous pleasaunces of beauty. Your home is the earth, ours the idea of it. Your danger is to be drowned in the world of sense, ours to gasp for breath in airless space. You are a poet, I a thinker. You sleep on your mother’s breast, I watch in the wilderness. On me there shines the sun; on you the moon with all the stars. Your dreams are all of girls, mine of boys—

This conversation affects Goldmund and he later collapses and is put to bed to recuperate. On recovering he has a vision of his mother, whom he can barely remember, and experiences feelings of agony and joy; from hereon he appears to Narziss to have found his true self. Goldmund realises that Narziss was correct in his analysis of himself and that he must escape into the world, away from the cloister.

Now, why did this part of the book annoy me so much when I first read it? It may have just been that I wasn’t in the mood for it but it was also this idea of duality in life, this idea that everything could be explained in terms of complimentary opposites (yin and yang?) which I find just too simplistic an argument to be useful for…well, anything really. In this case it is stated that thinkers/scholars are all like Narziss — pious, ascetic, distant from the world; and artists/free-spirits are all like Goldmund — lovers, live life to the full, belong in the world. Later on in the novel we get this explanation:

All being, it seemed, was built on opposites, on division. Man or woman, vagabond or citizen, lover or thinker — no breath could both be in and out, none could be man and wife, free and yet orderly, knowing the urge of life and the joy of intellect. Always the one paid for the other, though each was equally precious and essential.

With regards to character types I think it’s more useful to think in terms of a spectrum of types rather than in binary terms; in this case, admittedly, Narziss and Goldmund may sit at either ends of the spectrum but most of us will be somewhere between the two poles. Having read this section through again I believe that Hesse is using these two extreme character types to make the point that we should not try to be someone we’re not. But then doesn’t this raise the question as to whether we stick to our ‘natural self’ (whatever that means) and never try to change ourselves or whether we should try to change, try new things, experiment etc. I’m not quite so sure it’s as easy as Hesse seems to think to ‘be yourself’. Why shouldn’t Narziss experience the world? Why shouldn’t Goldmund study, learn a trade and settle down etc? They don’t have to be one or the other?

The other thing that annoyed me was all this ‘mother-worship’ stuff going on with Goldmund. It’s explained in this quote:

I understand you well. Now we have no need to dispute: you are awake, and so you have seen the difference between us, the difference between men akin to their father and those who take their destiny from a woman; the difference between spirit and intellect.

Again, it’s the incredibly simplistic idea that artistic temperament comes from the mother while the intellect comes from the father. I guess it’s the influence that Freud et al. had on artists during this period that explains some of this.

Once I realised that I just disagreed with a lot of what Hesse was saying I began to enjoy the book a lot more and didn’t worry. Once Goldmund leaves the monastery to experience life the book changes tack completely and it becomes more of a picaresque novel. Just when all this wandering about starts to get a bit dull Goldmund suddenly finds an aim in life:

…Goldmund had a thing he had never known, a thing he had often smiled at, or envied, in others: an aim.

The aim is to become an artist which takes up much of the rest of the novel until Narziss and Goldmund meet again.

Despite the problems I had with this novel, in the end I really enjoyed it. The style is a mixture of realism and mythology; the descriptions are realistic but it’s in a vaguely defined medieval Germany that almost seems Arthurian until Goldmund experiences the plague that’s ravaging the countryside.

hesse-revisedI read this as part of the Hermann Hesse Reading Week hosted by Caroline at ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Karen at ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’. I’ve enjoyed reading the other posts on Hesse’s work and I’ve discovered a lot about the man and his work.


Filed under Fiction, Hesse, Hermann

18 responses to “‘Narziss and Goldmund’ by Hermann Hesse

  1. I really enjoyed your review. I find it interesting that you had a negative reaction to the first 50 pages. I’m glad you stuck with it though. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more of Hesse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I’m glad I stuck with it as well. I sometimes get annoyed with books, sometimes for a good reason, sometimes not, and I considered abandoning N&G; but when I realised that it was just that I didn’t agree with some of the things Hesse was saying then I realised that was no reason for not reading it. He has a very readable style.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Nice review Jonathan and I’m glad you persevered. I had considered re-reading this myself, and it’s interesting that many of the points you bring up about the book are ones I encountered with “Steppenwolf” and “Glass Bead….”. He has this thing about the dichotomy between intellect and spirit, but even mocks himself in “Steppenwolf” for trying to define his hero as being one of only two opposites. A fascinating writer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks. Steppenwolf was the only one I’d read before N&G and that was years ago, and I vaguely remember not liking it. I’d like to try it again though – and see what I’d make of it now. I did think about reading it for this week but I’ve been trying to read books that I already own.

      I’m guessing that this duality comes from his interest in Eastern religions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kaggsysbookishramblings

        Yes, I think so – certainly the influence of the East has been strong in the ones I’ve re-read recently.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this when I read it as a teenager but I’m sure some of it would annoy me now as well. Hesse often uses an alter ego, I wonder if in this book he didn’t use two. Narziss and Goldmund are both Hesse but with different traits, sort of.
    But the influence of Easter religions is here too, of course.


    • Jonathan

      Once I got over the annoying bits I enjoyed it. After all, there’s no reason why characters in a novel can’t espouse views that we disagree with.


  4. I really enjoyed your review of this book, particularly your commentary on the questions it raised in your mind. It reminds me of a different book that uses a similar theme of opposing personality types – it was something I read when I was much younger, so I’m struggling to remember the name of it right now! Ah well, it might come back to me at some point.


  5. Funny how we can find ourselves arguing with a book and then we just allow ourselves to enjoy it. When I read helen Garner’s This House of Grief (which is fantastic btw) I found myself arguing with the author. It ended up being one of my best-of year.

    I meant to read some Hesse but failed. Don’t know that I’ll start here though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I find it annoying when people give up on a book because they didn’t ‘like’ the characters and so I thought it would be just as silly to give up on a book because I didn’t agree with the characters (and author). It wouldn’t be a bad book to start with; it is actually very readable.


  6. Pingback: Hermann Hesse Reading Week Wrap Up | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  7. Jeff

    I’m currently reading The History Man, and the conflict between a ‘radical’ lecturer and a ‘conservative’ student reads stagily. There is at the same an enlivening through the conflict (which is oddly halfway through the book). What interested me about your post is how similarly Hesse’s characters seem to align themselves with readymade identity types in the same way that Bradbury’s do. Don’t we see this alignment whenever anyone talks about divisive figures in real life? A tension here perhaps between the gradations you mention and the desire to belong?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks for your comment Jeff. It does sound similar.

      When I was studying physics at Uni I put in a lot of time and effort trying to understand difficult concepts and mathematics. Often, when people found out I was studying physics they would say, either outright, or imply that, I must be naturally gifted to study it, thereby dismissing all the time and effort I had put into it and also giving the other person an excuse not to even entertain studying the subject because it didn’t come ‘naturally’ to them. I can accept that some subjects, concepts etc. may be natural to some people but for the vast majority of us we have to work hard to learn things. I do; very little comes ‘naturally’.

      The idea that Hesse was propounding that there is an artist/free soul type and a thinker/scientist type is ok up to a point but the majority of us will be a mix of these, if at all. It also seems very fatalistic to just see oneself belonging to a specific ‘type of person’ and then to restrict oneself to the role of that type. Types seem ok as long as they’re just a way of making sense of the world but shouldn’t be used as rulebook for future action.

      I felt that Hesse was essentially saying: find out whether you are Narziss or Goldmund then follow the rules for how to live as N or G. And don’t ever try to do anything outside of your defined role because that will require effort.

      I was going to include all this in the post but I was having trouble being coherent as you can probably tell with this comment. In the end I liked N&G because it made me think and riled me a bit.


      • Jeff

        Some of the best books are the ones that get under your skin and annoy. Frictionless reading should be viewed with suspicion.
        I notice how many people today are keen to label themselves as artists. I’ve enjoyed created things since I was a teenager, and have described this in terms of what I do at any given time (incidentally, that currently includes programming for writing, an unacceptable combination in Hesse’s model). Over the decades since I was a teenager, the growth of courses and technology has enabled more people to create. Alongside that has been a growth in ‘reality’ TV and self-styling on the Internet – these things have helped shift the emphasis from what we do to who we are: ‘I’m a creative practitioner’ or ‘I’m a musician / producer / raconteur / svengali etc. etc.’ Perhaps Hesse’s book picks at a what has become a contemporary obsession with identity? Do you not think the idea that who we are can be pre-ordained or commented on by someone else is somewhat out of step with the times while at the same time attractive in its simplicity?


  8. Great commentary on this book.

    I am a great admirer of Hermann Hesse’s work and read this a few yeas ago.
    I was impressed by the book overall but I shared ed your feeling that it is a little simplistic. I think that the ideas that Hesse presents here are less developed then they are in other works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks Brian. I got to like it though, and I’m aiming to read some more Hesse. I want to try Steppenwolf, which I’ve read before but can’t remember a damn thing about.


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