Tag Archives: Hermann Hesse Reading Week

‘A Child’s Heart’ by Hermann Hesse

Hesse_Klingsors-Last-Summer-fcXC-700pxA Child’s Heart is a short story included in the Picador collection Klingsor’s Last Summer – uh! what a cover! but hey, it was the ’70s. The collection also includes the title story and Klein and Wagner. A Child’s Heart is beautifully told but it starts ominously, talking of fate and the effects that decisions can have on one’s life. The adult narrator is discussing an event that involved the narrator’s father and which happened thirty years before, when he was a child. The narrator had had a guilty conscience since the morning, despite not being aware of any wrongdoing. As he enters ‘his father’s house’ at lunchtime he is pondering his natural wickedness and his longing to be good. Looking back, the narrator describes his feelings that day:

If I were to reduce all my feelings and their painful conflicts to a single name, I can think of no other word but: dread. It was dread, dread and uncertainty, that I felt in all those hours of shattered childhood felicity: dread of punishment, dread of my own conscience, dread of stirrings in my soul which I considered forbidden and criminal.

On this day the narrator decides to see his father. He goes to his father’s study, enters, but no-one is there. A compulsion to steal comes over him, as it has done before, and he steals a few pen nibs. After nosing about further he finds some dried figs hidden away in a drawer and without thinking, he eats a few and pockets some more. The fear then returns and he joins the others at the meal table.

Now the misery was upon me. I would have let my hand be chopped off if that could have restored my figs to the drawer. I decided to throw the figs away, to take them to school and give them away. If only I were rid of them, if only I never had to see them again!

But he doesn’t throw them away. After lunch he absentmindedly eats a few and hides the rest behind some books. Nothing good is going to happen on this day—he thinks of his own inadequacies, he bunks off school and gets in a fight with his friend…but still the sense of dread, of being discovered pervades his thoughts.

This story effectively describes the thoughts and feelings that a child has when contemplating the world. At times the narrator feels powerful, ready to stand-up to anyone: his father, bullies, God; and then the realisation hits that he’s still a child and is powerless in the adult’s world. The narrator wonders if maybe his ‘crime’ won’t be discovered by his father but other times he seems to want to be found out.

The ending is great. It has a subtle twist and a bit of a ‘fuck you’ vibe to it – brilliant stuff! I won’t spoil the ending as you’ll want to read this one.

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’. Check out some of the other posts at the links above.


Filed under Fiction, Hesse, Hermann

‘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