For years I have looked at Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game with a curious sense that this may be ‘difficult’ and beyond me in some esoteric sense. However, I was recently ambulanced into hospital with a …well, you don’t need to know the details but it involved a racing heart beat. Before leaving home I snatched up the thickest book I could find to keep me occupied. And so it was that I found myself with three days in bed with nothing else to do but read The Glass Bead Game.
What can I say? Here was Hesse’s masterpiece , cited in his Nobel Prize for Literature (1946). Well, where do I start?
First let’s deal with the difficulty. It’s not. There is a turgid introduction to the main novel that does not explain what the game is – and then it is the simple story of Joseph Knecht who…
First, let’s talk about the context. The real context ie the background against which Hesse was writing was the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hesse had fled to Switzerland where he spent the war years. The Glass Bead Game was published in 1943.
So, naturally, we need to interpret this as a response to his times – so what was the narrative context? Some future time (some centuries into the future) in which a region (of Germany?) had been hived off to become a centre of learning and cultivation – a region to which particularly gifted children were sent where they either made it or were creamed off and sent to the other world – the world of practical endeavours. And in this weird world where learning is cultivated but artistic creation specifically ruled out (Platonic or what?) the ultimate achievement is The Glass Bead Game.
Now this game is a weird sort of game. You don’t play against anyone – though there is some sense that there are winners – or at least people who are good at it and who are therefore admired. There is nothing so crude as a score or a penalty shoot-out. To the extent that one gets a sense of what the game is, it is a masturbatory playing with cultural connections – a sort of mental performance art.
The novel itself is simply the story – the inexorable, unremitting story – of Joseph Knecht who is born, is educated, shows promise, develops, becomes good at the Game, becomes a master of the game – The Magister Ludi – and then… (should I save you days of pain? Why not?) He leaves this world and enters the real world and …. Let’s just say that he has a fatal contact with reality.
And that’s it. What a let down the whole book is. This is Hesse’s commentary on the horrors of Nazism? How are we to interpret this world in which Joseph Knecht grows? Is it a world that is a valid counter to the real world of Nazism? Not in my book. It is a sterile world. I can only interpret this world as a retreat on Hesse’s part, an averting of the eyes. There is no wisdom here. We keep expecting wisdom (Hesse’s oeuvre – Steppenwolf, Siddhartha – is suggestive of wisdom) but it eludes us – well, let’s keep this real, it eluded me.
What was the point of this alternative world? Perhaps the only point is to say that such a world – a world in which cultural memory is the only value – is a world which on contact with the real world will instantly freeze and die. But does Hesse think this world in which people play games with cultural memory (but are not permitted to add to this culture through the writing of new books, the creation of new musical compositions, the painting of new pictures) – does he think this is a good world? Is it a world that we should try to create. There is no sense of this.
If I were to summarise the book’s message (and Hesse is an author associated with messages) then I would suggest that this book is a work of despair – reality is intolerable but so is the masturbating with culture. The message is that there is no message. There is no hope.
Of course Hesse can write and this book is written with solid stone – but oh dear – it requires the forced vacation of a stay in hospital to keep you reading (why do I keep thinking you will have the same response as me?).
The version I have of the book is the new Vintage paperback edition – and the strange thing is that these normally come with a learned introduction. In this edition there is no such introduction. It would seem that no-one quite knows what to do with this book.
And the other amusing aspect of the book – set centuries in the future – is the failure of Hesse’s technological imagination. People walk from town to town. This is not because cars don’t exist – they simply don’t make an appearance until around the three quarter mark. There is some reference to radio but none to Television or computers (which had not of course been invented in 1943). This is not a book about the future. It is a book about the past – not the historical past but the foetal past of childhood, a past of lakes and streams and innocence.
Here is my summary: This is a book that epitomises Hesse’s failure to confront his times – instead he curls up and whimpers.