Saturday, May 21, 2011

Seven Years Too Late, Fifteen Years Too Early

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) at his writing desk late in life.

I have recently been rereading “Beneath The Wheel”, Hesse’s first enduring book.

“Beneath The Wheel” is a very poetic work, with pages of great beauty—but it is also unmistakably the work of a 22-year-old.

Alas, Hesse was 29 years old when he wrote “Beneath The Wheel”—and therein lies the rub.

This semi-autobiographical portrait of a precocious young man forced to come to terms with the insensitivity of the world around him lacks the concentrated flame of the first rush of youthful genius. Hesse was seven years too late in writing the novel.

It also lacks the detached observation and probing psychological insight that mark the work of the mature novelist. Hesse was fifteen years away from refining his skills into mastery.

Neither fish nor fowl, “Beneath The Wheel” provides a frustrating reading experience—and yet it captures with great accuracy a particular moment in time in late-Wilhelmine Germany that was soon to be washed away forever.

Such a book could not have been written after 1914.

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