A top-notch biography of the Nobel Prize–winning writer, who suffered spiritual crises and suicidal depression.
German biographer and film and theater critic Decker, editor of Theater der Zeit, offers a masterful, penetrating biography of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), adroitly translated by Lewis, that deserves the accolade “definitive.” Drawing on Hesse’s voluminous correspondence (including newly available letters to Stefan Zweig and psychiatrist Josef Lang), autobiographical writings, and 20 volumes of complete works, Decker lays bare Hesse’s complex, contradictory personality, his all-consuming dedication to the creative life, his tormented relationships with women, and the cultural and political forces that found their ways into his works. The son of Pietist missionaries, Hesse rebelled violently against his parents’ fanatical religious beliefs—so violently that his parents committed him to an insane asylum when he was 15. He repeatedly sent his poems and stories to his mother, who repeatedly withheld praise or encouragement; “nothing,” Decker asserts, “could have been more important than being acknowledged by his mother as a writer.” Yearning for her love, he was torn by his need “to distance himself from this world in which art was at best a pretty ornament on the Sunday-best dress of the bourgeoisie.” Although married three times, Hesse was by nature a loner and narcissist: moody, hypochondriacal, and self-absorbed. He could never see a woman as a friend, and he demeaned and ignored his wives and lovers. Yet he was capable of friendship, with German poet Hugo Ball, for one, and Thomas Mann. Several of Hesse’s most famous novels—Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game—“touched the nerve of the age” by portraying a protagonist who felt alienated by society, “an outsider filled with a loathing for the world and self-disgust,” a man striving to reconcile the duality of his personality, or one compelled to wander, though longing for home. “How Ought One to Live?” Hesse asked, again and again.
A richly detailed and supremely sensitive portrayal of an artist obsessed with the “terrible and magnificent” act of creation.