Demian was first published in 1919. My Picador edition made use of a translation from 1958 by W. J. Strachan. Demian was originally published under the pseudonym, Emil Sinclair, who is the narrator of the story. The narrator begins the story by describing ‘two worlds’, the first is the comfortable, clean, friendly world of his parents’ house and the other world is, well, basically the world outside of the first world, which is noisy, scary, violent and chaotic but also exciting, fun and lively. At the beginning of the story Emil is ten years old and he describes an event that has repercussions throughout the whole narrative. Emil gets to know an older, burly, rough boy called Franz Kromer who likes to boss and bully the younger boys. One day the boys sit around telling stories of their misdeeds in order to impress Kromer and each other. Emil can’t think of any bad things that he’s done so he makes up an incident where he stole some apples from a garden. Kromer suspects that Emil is lying but starts to blackmail him threatening to tell the owner of the apple tree if Emil doesn’t pay him two marks. Emil’s life becomes miserable as he ends up stealing small amounts from his parents in order to pay Kromer.
And then along comes a new boy, Max Demian, who saves Emil from Kromer’s bullying. How he actually gets Kromer to stop is never made explicit but Demian seems to Emil and the other boys to possess hidden powers over other people. A year or two pass and then Emil begins to encounter Demian more frequently. One time Emil sees Demian in a street crowd surrounding a dead horse and gets to observe him closely.
I saw Demian’s face and remarked that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s and then I saw, or rather became aware, that it was not really the face of a man either; it had something different about it, almost a feminine element. And for the time being his face seemed neither masculine nor childish, neither old nor young but a hundred years old, almost timeless and bearing the mark of other periods of history than our own.[…]Perhaps he was handsome, perhaps I found him attractive, perhaps he repelled me too, I could not even be sure of that. All I saw was that he was different from the rest of us, that he was like an animal, a spirit or an image. I cannot describe him except to say that he was different, unimaginably different from the rest of us.
Emil and Demian soon become close friends. Demian seems to have powers over other people, he seems to be able to bend them to his will, which impresses Emil. Demian believes that we should not just honour the ‘good’ things ascribed to God but we should also honour the ‘bad’ things ascribed to the Devil; this line of thinking is in tune with Emil’s thinking of the ‘two worlds’.
Emil ends up going to another school and is separated from Demian. At this school he ends up drinking a lot and leading a dissolute life for a while. This period comes to an end when he becomes obsessed with a woman called Beatrice. Rather than try to meet her he takes up painting in order to paint her portrait, but the portrait, Emil realises, actually resembles Demian. Emil meets Demian during this period and after a chat Demian says, enigmatically:
It is good to know that we have within us one who knows everything about us, wills everything, does everything better than we can ourselves.
The novel begins to take on a more spiritual tone at this point as Emil embarks on a spiritual journey to ‘find himself’. In his studies he comes across the god Abraxas, the god who was both God and Devil. He meets a new friend, Pistorius, an organist who also knows about Abraxas and who reminds Emil of Demian. Pistorius helps Emil to discover more about himself and his own life.
And at this point I felt the truth burning within me like a sharp flame, that there was some rôle for everybody but it was not one which he himself could choose, re-cast and regulate to his own liking. One had no right to want new gods, no right at all to want to give the world anything of that sort! There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself, to become resolute within, to grope his way forward wherever that might lead him. The discovery shook me profoundly; it was the fruit of this experience.
Emil then goes to university and once again comes across Demian and also gets to meet Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, who is even more enigmatic than her son and whom Emil, of course, falls in love with. But as Emil’s spiritual journey continues the world is hurtling towards a world war.
Hesse tells a fascinating story, his style is compelling and although I cannot really identify with the spiritual, metaphysical nature of Emil’s journey it is an interesting journey to follow.