Now that I’ve reached middle age, I thought it was time to revisit that classic of earnest adolescent angst (despite the fact the novel’s hero is nearNow that I’ve reached middle age, I thought it was time to revisit that classic of earnest adolescent angst (despite the fact the novel’s hero is nearly 50 years old), Hermann Hesse’ Steppenwolf.
I found the early sections of the book dull, flat, pretentious, and swimming in its own vanity. But the later sections corrected some of these faults, and made the book interesting and worth reading overall.
My main problem with the early parts of Steppenwolf is that the novel is constantly tells us how fine a soul Harry Haller has: how intelligent he is, how spiritually enlightened, how artistically refined, how little he can tolerate the world of power and money and order and easy pleasures, or understand the lives of ordinary people, and how much he suffers.
But the novel is always telling us these things about Harry; it never shows us these qualities or convinces us that they are true. Harry’s uniqueness is described first in an introduction to the manuscript written by a middle class businessman of slight acquaintance with Harry; then by passages written by Harry himself; then in a magical “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” that Harry buys from a mysterious vendor.
Normally, one piece of sustained exposition is enough to set up a story the author can’t quite get going on its own. Three is too much. And the constant repetition of how exceptional Harry is makes me suspicious. Accomplished people go about the business of being accomplished. People who are not accomplished – but very much like the idea of being so – will announce their exceptional attributes constantly, substituting pronouncements for action.
The novel’s investment in Harry’s extraordinary qualities makes me believe that Hesse is also invested in them and that he is inviting us to invest in them as well. Only a great artist could bring a great artist alive on the page, is the implication: therefore I am a great artist. Only a truly intelligent and perceptive reader could understand a great artist; therefore you are an intelligent and perceptive reader.
This mutual admiration society constructed by Steppenwolf would be harmless enough if such vanity were not the most deadly enemy of art. All that is strange and delicate and inexpressible and irreducible in art – all its sublime alchemy – is thrown under the feet of flattery and easy compliment. The work exists only to puff up the ego and ambitions, and comfort the insecurities, of those associated with it.
This is harsh criticism, and it seems like it should be a fatal one. But as the book progresses, Hesse’ destroys any sense we have that all of Harry’s accomplishments have any real value. The book still sees him as a unique and rare soul – but a unique and rare soul leading a useless existence, a man who has forgotten how to laugh, who has forgotten how to find pleasure in life, who is a fool, a baby, and a wretch who should be pity and scolded and taken by the hand and pulled away from his stubborn loneliness and self-importance. This humanizes Harry and gives the book blood.
Finally, Steppenwolf has an interesting structure. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess that works pretty well with the novel’s themes and characters. Harry is always talking about great composers, Baroque ones like Handel, Mozart above all, but it is Berlioz' “Symphonie fantastique” that really is playing throughout the book.
So two solid stars for Hesse’ Steppenwolf. You could spend you time with many books, and many writers, far worse than this one.
I've started re-reading books from college or before. My reaction to TSATF keeps going back and forth between "Wow, Faulkner's brilliant" and "Man, thI've started re-reading books from college or before. My reaction to TSATF keeps going back and forth between "Wow, Faulkner's brilliant" and "Man, this guy is getting away with fraud big time."
The brilliant comes from Faulkner's quality as a writer. He delivers an astonishing range of different characters' and voices, seemingly without effort. Many of his descriptions are similarly excellent. I kept thinking, "Tell me Faulkner didn't read 'Ulysses' and see Picasso before he wrote this book," but he got his money's worth out of both. (Although I think he might owe them a finder's fee. Perhaps one estate can pay the other?) I had an instinctive sense that the book was whole and complete on the last page of the original text, without being able to explain why.
On the fraud side is that the story is as gothic as southern gothic gets, and I don't think I would have taken the book seriously for five minutes if Faulkner had told his story straight. The style and the innovative structure and (sometimes needless) complications all seem to exist to hid this fact.
For example, there are two Quentin's in the book, one male, one female, who exist at different times in the novel's chronology and it takes a while to make sense of it. (The famous opening section narrated from the point of view of a character with mental disabilities is similarly disorienting to the unwarned reader, but at least it's deeply justified by the character.)
I know it's a cubist picture, fracturing consciousness into a kaleidoscope, liberating the narrative from the constraints of time and place and setting and character and action, blah blah blah, but come on Will, you knew people were going to be confused by the two Quentins. I'm not a big fan of obscurity pretending to be profundity in novels, probably because the whole art form is lousy with it, particularly among the mass of writers whose ambitions exceeds their talents, and being a first-rate novelist doesn't get you a free pass in my neighborhood.
Finally, the Compson Appendix that was added later by Faulkner emphasized the fraud aspect for me. It helps make sense of the plot, but it brings out the weaker aspects of the book as a result, and it made me complain out loud: "You're kidding. THAT was Quentin Compson's problem. What a bunch of hooey."
Would I recommend you read the book? For all you lovers of "Big L" literature out there, yes. For the others, the going will be tough and life won't be getting any longer while you slog through.