Robin Tell-Drake's Reviews > The Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
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did not like it
bookshelves: reviewing-this-from-memory, literary

A tremendous disappointment, especially given the shimmering praise the book garners on all sides. I realize I’m at odds with the world in judging this book harshly, and I realize there may yet be some dimension of brilliance here that I’m just not seeing, but grant me this, it’s not for lack of trying. No other novel have I ever laid down without a backward glance within a few dozen pages of the end, certain at last that the great payoff for my eight hundred pages of patience was never going to come. Here’s the big plot spoiler: nothing at all happens in this book. Not “nothing” in a loaded, John Cage way, just nothing, as when the author cannot deliver on his heady promises but publishes a book anyhow. I actually think it’s kind of important to call bullshit on all the approbation the book receives.

The two fundamental failures in the book are its main character and its central device, the Game itself. Both failures are drearily total, and each is all the more of a letdown for the breathless, never-ending clamor of hype both within and without the book’s pages.

The book starts right out with the declaration of Joseph Knecht’s pivotal importance, as the greatest player the Game has ever had, after whose career the history of the Game could never be the same. This is repeated ceaselessly throughout, in narrative asides. Meanwhile, we watch a pleasant, unassuming, talented young boy as he is handpicked by a professor, becomes a promising student whose great potential is remarked on by everyone he meets, and moves on to become a professor at a young age. He is indeed the youngest ever to become Magister Ludi, so at least that should earn him a mention in the history books. We are told, I think precisely once, that when he runs a game, it’s a good one. And then he gets old; along the way he meets some people and has some conversations. And then he dies in a swimming accident, and then we riffle through some of his personal papers until the book is over. Even his youthful writings, a strange little coda to his own life story, echo the pattern of fervent affirmation of the importance of a character—plainly himself in thin disguise, but now being described, just as fawningly, in his own voice—who goes on to do nothing much.

If in fact Knecht ever does anything of greater historical importance than being generally agreeable and good at what he does, it is not told to us. His life is a dull blank, undeserving of a biography at all, especially when at least three other characters go by who might actually have made good reading. Consider the strangely beatified Music Master, whose unexpectedly mystical transcendence of humanity Knecht merely witnesses when it comes along late in the book; that might be worthy of history. Or Knecht’s boyhood rival, a fiery young student who leaves the academic world and is reunited with Knecht later on one of the protagonist’s vanishingly rare ventures outside his ivory tower; his relationship to the Game is complex and troubled, but this barely ruffles the surface of Knecht’s complacency. Or there is the Sinophile who draws Knecht into a dialogue with Chinese history and literature, who gets to deliver the book’s most interesting challenge: when Knecht seeks his assistance in bringing the symbology of the I Ching into the vocabulary of the Game (much easier, you’d think, than it would have been to encapsulate French poetry or organic chemistry, since the I Ching is already encoded in a set of symbols easily printed on beads), his new mentor smiles and says you can build a garden in the world, but good luck fitting the entire world inside your garden. What’s this? A character within the Glass Bead Game dismissing the Game itself as far lesser than some other symbol system? Here, now, we have the potential for a meaty examination of this Game thing, which we deserve after putting up with so much talk about it. But Knecht just shrugs and goes about his business, and there will be no exposition upon either system. Because the Game is the other aching nullity at the heart of the book; there’s nothing there.

Hesse was inspired to write, beyond doubt, by the legitimately awesome notion of the Game. He imagines a symbol system within which all academic disciplines can be encoded, and can interact with each other, like a conversion chart for all fields of knowledge. Within this system, all concepts are encoded on beads, and it seems any of them can meaningfully combine with any other, such that wild new ideas emerge in the interplay. Here is the complex discourse wherein some kind of game, some competition or contest, can flourish, a game of all human learning, ranging like lightning from one discipline to another, referencing everything. Only a rarefied kind of academic could hope to understand such a game, let alone play it competitively. And the book is set within the cloistered academy where these super-scholars are trained.

It’s a sweeping, fascinating idea. It’s enough, without adding much of anything else, to drive a really memorable short story. But Hesse wanted it to crown a towering edifice, worthy of the sense of weight and magnitude that was, in fact, only the subject of the idea rather than its dimensions. By which I mean: it was a vague little slip of an idea about something vast and weighty, rather than actually being a vast and weighty idea. But Hesse fooled himself, and in his excitement he determined to write a very long novel, and that was a mistake from which there could be no recovery.

The fatal problem is that Hesse wilts instantly before the task of filling in any kind of detail about what the game was and how it worked. He hasn’t a clue. Inspired by his book, several people have gone on to design more or less playable games to match their impressions of the game he only alludes to—you can find them on the internet if you look around—but he never does. And the more ambient suspense the author generates by promising a brilliant reality, without ever showing even a flickering corner of it, the worse the bland filler starts to smell when it all gets stale. Mind you, I know it’s too much to ask for him to generate a practical game that lives up to his vision. But we don’t need him to do that. He need only sketch some part of it, fill in a detail here and a detail there that his characters can make part of their workaday conversations. He does need to do something, though, and it needs to pass muster as at least a tantalizing beginning of the thing itself. One example, perhaps, of a specific bead that represents something from the science of biology; what is written or drawn on the bead? What might be one instance of that bead’s being played in answer to a bead representing some architectural concept? That would be enough. He makes frequent mention of music—indeed the deification of music, common among writers, is so relentless here as to become a minor problem in its own right—but no sign of how it relates to any other field. Of course, a writer needs to be able to let the reader fill in empty spaces that the story only sketches with spare gestures. But the gestures need to be the beginning of something worthy.

In the event, that one game—”composed” by Knecht during his tenure as Top Official in Gameland—gives us just enough detail to make clear, after most of the book has gone by, that what’s actually happening here is a solo show. Knecht has composed a complex exercise in advance, and now the other players are just acting it out, perhaps filling in some details at their own discretion but abiding by a predetermined structure. Our one glimpse of the practical nature of the game has all the fanfare of a whoopee cushion. The Game isn’t actually a game. Nobody's playing. There are no objectives. It’s some sort of abstruse, very quiet performance art.

A long book full of portentious self-promotion but with nothing to say. An elaborately wrapped present with no gift inside. A big fat nothing. Not the nothing of the Buddhist, who longs for nothing and seeks it, but that of the Wizard of Oz—a nothing that noisily proclaims itself to be everything.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 1999 – Finished Reading
March 22, 2009 – Shelved
March 20, 2012 – Shelved as: reviewing-this-from-memory
September 10, 2012 – Shelved as: literary

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Axel-lute Is it possible that the whole thing is a satire on the meaninglessness of academia? And then no one in academia got it?

message 2: by Horst (new)

Horst A quarter Century ago after reading "Magister Ludi," as my used paperback copy was titled, I don't recall such a traumatic Eeyore, bipolar moment as our reviewer endured. Was there something I didn't miss that I should have? Or, and there are innumerable potential "Ors," is this an existentialist tale; '"Or," in a segment that the review note, that Knecht's taking leave of the Garden Master, Hesse has Knecht out Tao the Taoist? "Or," is it that this is a sublime parable, and the Mandala returns to existentialism. The probability, though certainly not certainty, that those whose carriages convey them through Life, who expect their carousels always have garishly painted living ponies and every bowl of alphabet soup spell out a literal tale, those self appointed to entitlement, regardless of socioeconomic constraints, are probably going to live a life of disappointment, always so sure of their due, so oblivious the next moment carries no warranty, express or implied.

message 3: by Maggie (new) - added it

Maggie Roessler I agree with all of your review except the complaint about the running of the actual game. I much appreciate the idea that the point of Knecht's 'pegagogical' style was to give the players room to *meditate*. If they were competitive, they couldn't have meditated on the conflicts and unities presented in the game.

message 4: by Mike (new) - rated it 1 star

Mike Boone I appreciate your sensibility here. Hess is a master of sophistry. If you like the dialog in The Matrix, you will love how, as Robin points out, the main character gets nowhere in only 800 pages and does it all in a "dimensionless" game.

message 5: by Maja (new) - added it

Maja i cannot comprehend why people can`t just appreciate the aesthetic appeal and structure of rhetoric harmony. i would like to see you write 500 pages of nothing, that is still worthy of literary immortality. although i commend your attempt of about 3 pages worth of nothing; imo, your pointless critisism will just be left to stagnate like everyone else who blatantly makes ostentatious effort to refute the work of a superior genius

message 6: by Maja (new) - added it

Maja and be very careful with verbosity. hesse is far from portentous. the irony is in the solemnity; which is what gives his liveliness validity. not to mention you spelt portentous wrong (not that i am one for pendantry) so that just goes to show you didn`t even try to correct yourself when unsure (or you were so sure of yourself incapable of error that the possibility of a mistake for you is entirely out of the question)

Robin Tell-Drake Hi! Well, seems you did catch me in a spelling mistake. That's a bit of egg on my face but I don't really think it carries such weight of implication as you find in it.

I certainly don't expect to win immortality by posting book reviews on the internet, so I'm not too fussed on that account. Hesse wrote novels and I never have, so he deserves more respect right there. More importantly, I'm not trying to dismiss Hesse as a writer, or to address his entire oeuvre.

The book itself, though, certainly qualifies as portentous, just literally--it spends a lot of time and energy building up the proposition that Knecht is going to do great and important things in his later career. That's all. And then, not to retread everything I said above, the promised history-changing events simply never come to pass.

So I suppose my claim is that the book doesn't particularly deserve any immortality at all. I don't think it's a very good book. I'm not against valid liveliness or rhetorical harmony or whatever. I just don't seem to be seeing those things in the book. It's entirely possible that they're there and I missed them. But I think it's also possible for a well-known author, even one who's done lots of excellent work, to write a book that isn't very good and have people praise it anyway based more or less on the author's general reputation.

message 8: by Maja (new) - added it

Maja >and have people praise it anyway based more or less on the author's general reputation.

perhaps it is so. however if you may so allow me to refute your point about the promised events that never come to pass;
he iterates throughout the book (particularly in the beginning) the unreliability of written history. i personally can only interpret this as a subversive suggestion for his readers to read between the lines and make up their own minds about Knecht`s fate. perhaps they never came to pass because he was no longer around to witness for himself when these history-changing events were propelled into eminence. and what should that matter? his essence still lingers through his influence.

i do admit though, i can be rather hasty. a mistake on my behalf for letting my perturbation out on you directly. one should never, ever do that. ever. so i apologise.

Julie I thought I had heard someplace the Glass Bead game was a metaphor for British Colonialism. the Great Game and such in carving up the world into spheres for conquest and plunder. If this is accurate then the gossamer threads connecting the passion of conquerors to silence of their own souls, is the territory that must be traversed. How to reconcile the two?

Julie Hesse wrote,

“What you call passion is not a spiritual force, but friction between the soul and the outside world."

Mikey Gee Robin- it was a great pleasure to read your thoughtful and thorough criticism on Hesse's work. The amount of time you spent to describe your problem with the book is itself a compliment of great quality. I think Hesse would be pleased with your words and am reminded of the character Father Jacobus praising the style of an editorial written against clericalism by the Desorgio character.

I take the somewhat unconventional view that you (and many others) give the glass bead game too much attention. It is incidental, furniture to the setting which is only important to reader so that we can understand the world the characters live in so that their decisions are meaningful.

I try to read every story in terms of the conflict and theme. This is very elementary I know and ironically I am posting this after teaching these basic concepts to 4th grade students.

Your position that nothing happens in the story is of course an exaggeration but points to the truth that the conflict is very subtly hidden in the story. But this hidden conflict is perhaps his greatest literary achievement, to so masterfully give the feel of Eastern harmony in the story do that Knetch comes across as a Buddha stepping from lilly pad to lilly pad without disturbing the water. But you are correct that though this might make fine poetry it does not make for fine literature. A story must have a conflict. Though Knetch is described by the narrator as serenely shedding each conflict off like an old skin there still is a consistent conflict throughout the story. Knetch is constantly torn between the world of the mind (which is the value of Castalia) and the world of the flesh (to put it crudely). Of course the world of the flesh not being like the Christian carnal world but the world of action and consequences, of life and death.

Perhaps this theme and conflict is only relevant to those who have struggled to balance these values but to philosophers and priests it is in many ways the only conflict.

message 12: by Greg (new)

Greg An insightful and well composed critique of the book which I thank you for. My own rating would be much higher, but that's by the by. The GBG was the first Hesse novel I read so I have a special affection for it, although as another reviewer states elsewhere the familiar themes of Hesse are dealt with more succinctly in other, shorter works.

message 13: by Robin (new) - rated it 1 star

Robin Tell-Drake I wonder if I am in danger of being won over by such genteel Hesse fans. It was a long time ago that I actually read the book. I begin to toy with the thought of trying it again. But maybe more the thing to do would be take a whack at a different bit of Hesse, since it does seem that these highly cerebral themes run through most of his work.

Any recommendations, you readers of Hesse?

message 14: by Greg (new)

Greg I'd say Steppenwolf. Even if you don't get on with it it has the virtue of being short in comparison to other works of Hesse.

Estelore Robin Tell, I wish to thank you for your review, which stands for me as a strong and graceful parallel to Ben Winch's review here.

Having just finished GBG, and having found it heartbreakingly beautiful, I have valued seeing a review which gives it such sharp critique, because I feel that all media deserves criticism and mental accountability by the reader, even if it is beloved media.

I have found that the plot itself is much less important to the book than the ideas couched in it. The craving you express, to hear more of Jacobus and Plinio, is, I think, part of Hesse's intent: these are men of the World, and not of the Province. Their lives read so much more real, earnest, and historical than Knecht's life. We as readers are drawn to them, just as Knecht is ultimately drawn to the World. This is an extension of Hesse's criticism against the over-academic nature of philosophical thought in his time, and part also of his imperative for us to explore and study history. Bear in mind the time period Hesse inhabited: 1940's Germany, so recently plagued by multiple wars and depressions. Hesse depicts a world that has made an idealistic departure from the culture which contributed to these wars, and he also uses Knecht to demonstrate how culture must not be severed from history, lest history continue to repeat itself. The Castalian Board are willing to blame the wars on cultural decline, but they are not willing to consider that war can also surface when the World's culture is no longer integrally interactive with the culture Castalia seeks to preserve in its ideal form.

I know it has been a long time since you read the book, and I wonder if you have ever returned to Hesse. If ever you are willing, I would dearly like to discuss the topic with you, because I feel I could learn much from your critical eye of the book, and perhaps I could help you find a way to value what the book does offer.

message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

I am slogging my way thru this "masterpiece." But I am not optimistic that it will get better as a story. It is intellectually interesting. But it is a very weak narrative with one-dimensional characters. And the author never gives the reader a real sense of what the Glass Bead Game is: no vivid, concrete, just abstract examples. This is not the 1st "classic" I have found underwhelming: Dante's DIVINE COMEDY is imagistically, intellectually & historically interesting, but not at all a great epic like the Iliad, Odyssey, or even the Aeneid; Hegel's PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT seemed an exercise in obscurantist & grandiose cloud-building around one key idea, as was Gadamer's TRUTH & METHOD. Hesse seems to have wanted to go grand with MAGISTER LUDI, but his real strength was simpler idealistic storytelling such as SIDDHARTHA

Estelore If you come into GBG expecting it to be plot-driven, character-driven, or science fiction concept-driven (the Game itself), then yes, you're definitely barking up the wrong book. This book is driven by much more ephemeral and dated things: ideology, culture, zeitgeist, and a commentary on the prior three. If you can accept that this is the case, and try to pay attention to what the author is actually hoping you'll take away from the narrative(s), then you may find it more enjoyable than if you spend the entire book desperately hoping it will start having faster pacing and more "events" and "drive" than it has shown so far.

Pay attention to how very frequently meditation is brought forward as an issue of significance in the story; the story itself has a psychospiritual quality which is very similar to meditation, and yes, it can take some willpower to see it through to its completion. If you are willing to do so, please approach the book as a sort of meditative practice, one which is designed to convey you to a certain emotional / spiritual place, and while in that place to offer you a gathering of ideas and experiences which connect and radiate outward from it, the way the beads in the Game connect and radiate from one another and are contemplated through meditation. The book itself IS the Game, but if we regard the game solely as a competitive phenomenon, and define that competition by modern and westernized standards, then certainly this gentler and slower style of 'play' will seem quite appallingly dull.

If you make it through this one and get something out of it, I suggest following it up with The Master of Go, by Kawabata. It's a novelization of a real historical game, and it has some very similar qualities which make it quite lovely to me.

Finally, if, after finishing GBG, you need something with a much quicker and livelier pace, I recommend The Grand Wheel (Bayley)and The Player of Games (Banks). If you have found yourself starved for action and high sci-fi concepts, these two fairly brief works ought to refresh your palate.

Douglas It was a huge disappointment for me, too. Hesse's masterpiece? Really?

message 19: by Robin (new) - rated it 1 star

Robin Tell-Drake I must try to find occasion to say "barking up the wrong book" is the next few days! Estelore, without question I will come talk to you if I take another shot at this book. Alas, I get much less time for pleasure reading than I'd like, so God only knows when that might happen. Sounds like Steppenwolf or Siddhartha would be a better first step for the likes of me.

Estelore I wish you the very best of luck with those two; they're definitely a milder introduction to the Hesse experience, and the content is probably more personally identifiable and sympathetic to the average modern reader.

message 21: by Per (new)

Per H. Excellent review. I agree with every word. I read this book as an adolescent and swallowed it all, hook, line and sinker. Upon revisiting it in my early twenties, I quickly realized that the whole novel is based on a thin slip of an idea, (whose implications Hesse himself could barely grasp), fleshed out into a full blown air castle.

So I stopped reading... And I lost all interest in plot long ago, so the weakness of the plot wouldn't be a problem at all if the novel had any kind of insight to show for itself, but, as you've already pointed out, it don't.

Frankly, I think most of Hesse's work is plagued by over-simplification of life's big questions, (the dichotomy in narciss und goldmund, to name an example), in order to evoke a false sense of enlightenment in the reader. That trick might work on a teenager, but it won't (shouldn't) work on the critical mind of an adult.

And I refuse to even consider the possibility that the "genius" of this novel somehow escaped me, as others have tried to convince you to believe. I recognize true wisdom when I see it, as easily as I see through false wisdom disguised as the real thing.

(I apologize for any grammatical errors. English is not my native tongue.)

Steven Bidlake If we set aside Sterne's 'Sentimental Journey' Hesse's 'Die Glasperlenspiel' is the first meta-novel. And it does more to destabilize and call into question the basic conventions and reader gratification strictures than either Joyce's 'Ulysses' or ' Finnegan's. Wake." But while Joyce's books present themselves defiantly as challenging, difficult books, Hesse presents his as a modest historical summary of events that never happened. This book was written while Hesse was in seclusion in neutral Switzerland after the madness of post-Weimar Germany's right-wing 'culture wars' eventuated in the mafdness and destruction of WW2. While Mann looked back and explored whether there was some fatal flaw in the German national character in 'Doktor Faustus,' Hesse in despair at modern society at large looks forward into a distant but discernible futu to see if there is any hope for civilization and culture at all.The book is a utopian futurist vision of a type of culture refined of faction and tendentious argument, transformed as an abstract exercise of rearranged and increasingly ingenious reinterpretations and reconfiguratio of the associations among allied arts and intellectual pursuits of many cultures. It is a utopiandream of an exceedingly unlikely pacified and harmonious future society. And as such, it is agentle satire of his own times, our times with its deconstructionism various other ideologically militant prepossessions, as well as as satire of Hesse's own bland utopia and its failure to provide the basic conflict he knew was required for the root metabolism of novelistic narrative. It is and wads, intentionally, an unreadable novel in any conventional sense. And its failure as a book along with our failure as readets is intendedas a reflecting poolin whichwe maycoplate the failures of our diseased order of civilization. Not a happy ending.

Kimik This book was one long, narcissistic debauchement of literary engagement. And the conclusion merely indicated that Hesse literally ran out of ideas and 'killed' off his protagonist in the most uneventful, uninspiring, meaningless way imaginable. I loved the idea of the glass bead game, but in absense of any sense of how such a 'game' actually could be executed in a practical manner, the story flailed and floundered.

Janez Stare I agree with every word of Robin's review. Hesse is generally overrated. Much overrated. And hiding behind 'aesthetic appeal and structure of rhetoric harmony', as some do, doesn't help. These are are just big words saying nothing.

message 25: by Sean (new) - added it

Sean Grey I am so glad I was able to read this review as I was actually considering slogging through to the end - hoping it would become interesting. I put it down halfway through and I will be much better off for it. Thanks.

Frank I love Hesse. Loved him in adolescence and still feel a pang of regret now for despising The Glass Beas Game! I agree with you thoroughly here. The only way I can justify having read this “prize winner” is by reviewing it as an extended metaphor or allegory/cautionary tale at the least.

message 27: by Robin (new) - rated it 1 star

Robin Tell-Drake Huh. Not sure this strikes me as all that normal.

Eleanor Thanks for this review, Robin! I know it’s an old one, but I went hunting around for GBG reviews because I’m in the thick of it and somewhat frustrated. I’m invested in the slog because my Father-in-Law loves the book and gifted it to me. I recognize that this isn’t a “plot book,” which is fine. I also recognize that the one-dimensionality of Knecht is something to do with the impartiality of the biographers.

I mostly just wonder who the book was for? The framing is so odd. The biographers at the beginning of the book present Knecht as “this invaluable figure in history that of course you know about and here are the bits we can share with you about his life.” A fictional figure for a fictional interested audience...and then the game itself has no details. There was one example given early on where a lecture of Knecht’s was quoted explaining how personal associations are valuable but not valid in the game and goes into a long poetic description of the association of an elderflower tree and a Schubert sonata from Knecht’s early childhood. But that was an example of what the game *isn’t*.

My most charitable interpretation is that the GBG is a long and subtle parody or send-up of the “pure” hierarchy of the academy and the life of the mind. Because as someone who lives an academic life, boy oh boy, is it not pure. But, if that’s what GBG is, it is very, very long winded and subtle indeed. But maybe that’s the appeal? I do love high-effort, pointless memes. I’m sure this is the wrong audience, but have any of you seen those quarantine tiktoks where teens spend God-knows how long bouncing a ping pong ball off of a million things in their kitchens just-so so that it plays out the NBA theme song or whatever. They’re hilarious. Maybe GBG is Hesse’s version of that haha

message 29: by Robin (new) - rated it 1 star

Robin Tell-Drake This review may be old, but not as old as the book. Not even as old as I am, and my teens miss no opportunity to remind me that I am capital-o Old. But because of them, I do know at least a little about Tiktok, and from now on I will consider it probable that one of those tiktok teens making bloody-minded "high effort, pointless memes" is in fact Hesse himself, reincarnated, and finally happy.

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