The review that follows is of the paperback published by Bertrams Books (April 5, 2012), Language: English (translated by David Horrocks), ISBN-10: 9780141192093 ISBN-13: 978-0141192093.
I found it somewhat of a challenge to review this book because on one level it’s a novel based on the author Hermann Hesse’s life, and on the other hand many people of my generation (young adults in the 1960s) regard it as a guide to psychedelic experiences and philosophy. I think the blame for people regarding it as some kind of “guide’ must fall on Timothy Leary.
The following article appeared in the New Statesman under this heading/subheading:
How Hermann Hesse became a hero of the Sixties counterculture
“Before your LSD session, read Siddartha and Steppenwolf,” advised Timothy Leary.
The article continued:
“The book of Hesse’s that had the greatest resonance in the Sixties was Steppenwolf (1927), after which a succession of rock bands and theatrical companies were named. The story of a middle-aged man who felt alienated as much from himself as from society, the novel attracted the counterculture partly because its hallucinatory style seemed to resemble experiences induced by mind-expanding drugs. The former Harvard psychologist and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary canonised Hesse as a “master-guide” to psychedelia, and advised his disciples: “Before your LSD session, read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.” Yet apart from a lifelong addiction to wine and tobacco, Hesse had no interest in drugs. More to the point, he feared and resisted with all his powers the loss of self that Leary sought and found in the psychedelic experience.”
The remainder of that article may be read here: https://www.newstatesman.com/2018/12/…
So, what did I make of the novel?
I enjoyed the read. I liked some parts more than others.
Overall, it was interesting and made this reader think about the philosophical/psychological content and how the protagonist Harry Haller’s (get it?) experiences and outlook tallied with my own life.
It’s clear from both the content and the translator’s (David Horrocks) excellent notes much of his material in this novel was based on his knowledge of the works of Carl Gustav Jung transmitted to him by his one time psychologist Joseph Lang, a student of Jung’s. As an aside, this edition translated by Horrocks has some wonderful insights into the author’s life and the novel.
Many others have reviewed this book and inserted so many spoilers so I’m going to skip the plot outline totally.
All you need to know and it’s what drew me to buying it, is our protagonist Harry Haller comes across a sign that intrigues him. It advertises a ‘Magic Theatre’ and adds: “PRICE OF ADMISSION YOUR MIND.”
That part of the book – the most important part and possibly the final third – left me with mixed feelings. Some of the ‘places’ he entered were fascinating including the oh-so relevant (in 2020) ‘war on machines.’ The part dealing with Hermione and her fate left me feeling short-changed. It was over before it had begun.
The other ‘episodes” were from his life, and to me, reflected the wrong choices he had made earlier in life. Choices he knew had conspired to make him unhappy. Miserable even. Regrets of his.
Haller realised all his learning had never brought happiness. He came to know the simple things in life are often the most joyous and beautiful. The metaphor for that was his learning to dance and the sheer enjoyment it brought him. He never ceased to amaze at the laughing faces in the dance hall.
It’s a thought-provoking novel and for that reason only, it should be widely read. The duality of man’s nature runs right through the story: good and bad, choices between the two. I don’t accept the eastern theories of the soul consisting of thousands of pieces. In this novel, surely those ‘thousands of pieces’ was Harry’s own life?
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