Today is the birthday (1877) of Hermann Karl Hesse, a German-born poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and at that time was not well known outside of the German-speaking world. Countercultural movements of the 1960s pushed Hesse’s writing much more to the forefront internationally.
Hesse was born in the Black Forest town of Calw in Württemberg. His grandparents served in India at a mission under the auspices of the Basel Mission, a Protestant Christian missionary society. His grandfather Hermann Gundert compiled the current grammar of the Malayalam language, compiled a Malayalam-English dictionary, and also contributed to the work of translating the Bible to Malayalam. Hesse’s mother, Marie Gundert, was born at a mission in India in 1842. In describing her own childhood, she said, “A happy child I was not…” As was usual among missionaries at the time, she was left behind in Europe at the age of four when her parents returned to India.
Hesse’s father, Johannes Hesse, the son of a doctor, was born in 1847 in the Estonian town of Paide (Weissenstein in German). Johannes Hesse belonged to the German minority in the Russian-ruled Baltic region: thus, Hermann Hesse was at birth both a citizen of the German Empire and the Russian Empire. Hermann had five siblings, but two of them died in infancy. In 1873, the Hesse family moved to Calw, where Johannes worked for the Calwer Verlagsverein, a publishing house specializing in theological texts and schoolbooks. Marie’s father, Hermann Gundert, managed the publishing house at the time, and Johannes Hesse succeeded him in 1893.
Hesse grew up in a Swabian Pietist household, with the Pietist tendency to insulate believers into small, deeply thoughtful groups. Furthermore, Hesse described his father’s Baltic German heritage as “an important and potent fact” of his developing identity. His father, Hesse wrote, “always seemed like a very polite, very foreign, lonely, little-understood guest.” Hesse’s father’s tales of Estonia gave the place a heavenly glow. “It was an exceedingly cheerful, and, for all its Christianity, a merry world. We wished for nothing so longingly as to be allowed to see this Estonia where life was so paradisiacal, so colorful and happy.” Hermann Hesse’s sense of estrangement from the Swabian petty bourgeoisie further grew through his relationship with his maternal grandmother, Julie Gundert née Dubois, whose French-Swiss heritage kept her from ever quite fitting in among that milieu.
From childhood, Hesse appeared headstrong and hard for his family to handle. In a letter to her husband, his mother wrote: “The little fellow has a life in him, an unbelievable strength, a powerful will, and, for his four years of age, a truly astonishing mind. How can he express all that? It truly gnaws at my life, this internal fighting against his tyrannical temperament, his passionate turbulence. God must shape this proud spirit, then it will become something noble and magnificent – but I shudder to think what this young and passionate person might become should his upbringing be false or weak.”
Hesse showed signs of serious depression as early as his first year at school. In his juvenilia collection Gerbersau, Hesse vividly describes experiences and anecdotes from his childhood and youth in Calw: the atmosphere and adventures by the river, the bridge, the chapel, the houses leaning close together, hidden nooks and crannies, as well as the inhabitants with their admirable qualities, their oddities, and their idiosyncrasies. Hermann Hesse’s grandfather, Hermann Gundert, encouraged him to read widely, giving him access to his library, which was filled with the works of world literature. All this instilled a sense in Hermann Hesse that he was a citizen of the world. His family background became, he noted, “the basis of an isolation and a resistance to any sort of nationalism that so defined my life.”
Young Hesse shared a love of music with his mother. Both music and poetry were important in his family. His mother wrote poetry, and his father was known for his use of language in both his sermons and the writing of religious tracts. His first role model for becoming an artist was his half-brother, Theo, who rebelled against the family by entering a music conservatory in 1885. Hesse showed a precocious ability to rhyme, and by 1889–90 had decided that he wanted to be a writer. In 1881, when Hesse was four, the family moved to Basel in Switzerland, staying for six years and then returning to Calw. After successful attendance at the Latin School in Göppingen, Hesse entered the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Maulbronn Abbey in 1891. The pupils lived and studied at the abbey, attending 41 hours of classes a week. Although Hesse did well during the first months, writing in a letter that he particularly enjoyed writing essays and translating classic Greek poetry into German, his time in Maulbronn was the beginning of a serious personal crisis. In March 1892, Hesse showed his rebellious character, and, in one instance, he fled from the Seminary and was found in a field a day later. Hesse began a journey through various institutions and schools and experienced intense conflicts with his parents. In May, after an attempt at suicide, he spent time at an institution in Bad Boll under the care of theologian and minister Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt. Later, he was placed in a mental institution in Stetten im Remstal, and then a boys’ institution in Basel. At the end of 1892, he attended the Gymnasium in Cannstatt, now part of Stuttgart. In 1893, he passed the One Year Examination, which concluded his schooling. The same year, he began spending time with older companions and took up drinking and smoking.
After his schooling, Hesse began a bookshop apprenticeship in Esslingen am Neckar, but left after three days. Then, in the early summer of 1894, he began a 14-month mechanic apprenticeship at a clock tower factory in Calw. The monotony of the work made him turn inward, and to leave the trade after the apprenticeship was over. In October 1895, he began a new apprenticeship with a bookseller in Tübingen who had a specialized collection in theology, philology, and law. Hesse’s tasks consisted of organizing, packing, and archiving the books. After the end of each 12-hour workday, Hesse pursued his own work, and he spent his long, idle Sundays with books rather than friends. Hesse started with theological literature and later read Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, and Greek classics. He began reading Nietzsche in 1895. By 1898, Hesse had a respectable income that enabled him to be financially independent of his parents. During this time, he concentrated on the works of the German Romantics, including much of the work of Clemens Brentano, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Novalis. In letters to his parents, he expressed a belief that “the morality of artists is replaced by aesthetics.”
In 1896, Hesse’s poem “Madonna” appeared in a Viennese periodical and his first small volume of poetry, Romantic Songs was published later that year. In 1897, a published poem of his, “Grand Valse”, drew him a fan letter. It was from Helene Voigt, who the next year married Eugen Diederichs, a young publisher. To please his wife, Diederichs agreed to publish Hesse’s collection of prose entitled One Hour After Midnight in 1898 (although it is dated 1899). Both works were a business failure. In two years, only 54 of the 600 printed copies of Romantic Songs were sold, and One Hour After Midnight had only one printing and sold sluggishly. Furthermore, Hesse was deeply upset when his mother disapproved of Romantic Songs on the grounds that they were too secular and even “vaguely sinful.”
From late 1899, Hesse worked in a distinguished antique book shop in Basel. In 1900, Hesse was exempted from compulsory military service due to an eye condition. This, along with nerve disorders and persistent headaches, affected him his entire life. In 1901, Hesse traveled for the first time to Italy. In the same year, Hesse changed jobs and began working at the antiquarium Wattenwyl in Basel. Hesse had more opportunities to release poems and small literary texts to journals. These publications now provided honoraria. His new bookstore agreed to publish his next work, Posthumous Writings and Poems of Hermann Lauscher. Due to the good notices that Hesse received for Lauscher, the publisher Samuel Fischer became interested in Hesse and, with the novel Peter Camenzind, which appeared first as a pre-publication in 1903 and then as a regular printing by Fischer in 1904, came a breakthrough: from now on, Hesse could make a living as a writer. The novel became popular throughout Germany. Sigmund Freud praised Peter Camenzind as one of his favorite books.
Hesse married Maria Bernoulli (of the famous family of mathematicians) in 1904, while her father, who disapproved of their relationship, was away for the weekend. The couple settled down in Gaienhofen on Lake Constance, and began a family, eventually having three sons. In Gaienhofen, he wrote his second novel, Beneath the Wheel, which was published in 1906. In the following time, he composed primarily short stories and poems. His next novel, Gertrude, published in 1910, revealed a production crisis. He had to struggle through writing it, and he later would describe it as “a miscarriage”. Gaienhofen was the place where Hesse’s interest in Buddhism was re-sparked. Following a letter to Kapff in 1895, Hesse had ceased alluding to Buddhist references in his work. In 1904, however, Arthur Schopenhauer and his philosophical ideas started receiving attention again, and Hesse discovered theosophy. Schopenhauer and theosophy renewed Hesse’s interest in India. During this time, there also was increased dissonance between Hesse and Maria, and in 1911 he left for a long trip to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. He also visited Sumatra, Borneo, and Burma, but the spiritual or religious inspiration that he was looking for eluded him. Nonetheless, the journey made a strong impression on his literary work. Following Hesse’s return, the family moved to Bern, but the change of environment did not solve the marital problems,
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hesse registered himself as a volunteer with the Imperial army, saying that he could not sit inactively by a warm fireplace while other young authors were dying on the front. He was found unfit for combat duty, but was assigned to service involving the care of prisoners of war. While most poets and authors of the war-participating countries quickly became embroiled in controversy, Hesse wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”), which was published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, on November 3rd. In this essay he appealed to his fellow intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic madness and hatred. He called for subdued voices and a recognition of Europe’s common heritage, writing, “love is greater than hate, understanding greater than ire, peace nobler than war, this exactly is what this unholy World War should burn into our memories, more so than ever felt before.” Hesse later indicated that this was a great turning point in his life. For the first time, he found himself in the middle of a serious political conflict, attacked by the German press, the recipient of hate mail, and distanced from old friends. He did receive continued support from his friend Theodor Heuss, and the French writer Romain Rolland, who visited Hesse in August 1915. In 1917, Hesse wrote to Rolland, “The attempt to apply love to matters political has failed.”
A series of life crises – the death of his father on 8th March 1916, the serious illness of his son Martin, and his wife’s schizophrenia – forced Hesse to leave his military service and begin receiving psychotherapy. This began for Hesse a long preoccupation with psychoanalysis, through which he came to know Carl Jung personally, and was challenged to new creative heights. During a three-week period in September and October 1917, Hesse wrote Demian, which was published following the armistice in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair.
By the time Hesse returned to civilian life in 1919, his marriage had shattered. His wife had a severe episode of psychosis, but, even after her recovery, Hesse saw no possible future with her. Their home in Bern was divided, their children were accommodated in pensions and by relatives, and Hesse resettled alone in the middle of April in Ticino. He took a small farm house near Minusio (close to Locarno), living from 25 April to 11 May in Sorengo. On 11 May, he moved to Montagnola and rented four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi. Here, he explored his writing projects further and began to paint in watercolor (reflected in his next major story, “Klingsor’s Last Summer”), published in 1920. This new beginning in different surroundings brought him happiness, and Hesse later called his first year in Ticino “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life.” In 1922, Hesse’s novella Siddhartha appeared, which showed the love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy that he had already developed earlier in his life. In 1924, Hesse married the singer Ruth Wenger, the daughter of the Swiss writer Lisa Wenger and aunt of Méret Oppenheim. It was not a stable relationship and did not last.
In 1923, Hesse obtained Swiss citizenship. His next major works, Kurgast (1925) and The Nuremberg Trip (1927), were autobiographical narratives with ironic undertones and foreshadowed his following novel, Steppenwolf, which was published in 1927. Shortly after his new successful novel, he turned away from the solitude of Steppenwolf and married art historian Ninon Dolbin, née Ausländer. This change to companionship was reflected in the novel Narcissus and Goldmund, appearing in 1930. In 1931, Hesse left the Casa Camuzzi and moved with his wife to a large house (Casa Hesse) near Montagnola, which was built according to his wishes.
In 1931, Hesse began planning what would become his last major work, The Glass Bead Game (a.k.a. Magister Ludi). In 1932, as a preliminary study, he released the novella Journey to the East. The Glass Bead Game was printed in 1943 in Switzerland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. As reflected in Demian, and other works, Hesse believed that “for different people, there are different ways to God”; but despite the influence he drew from Indian and Buddhist philosophies, he said of his parents: “their Christianity, one not preached but lived, was the strongest of the powers that shaped and moulded me”.
Hesse observed the rise to power of Nazism in Germany with concern. In 1933, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann went into exile, each aided by Hesse. In this way, Hesse attempted to work against Hitler’s suppression of art and literature that protested Nazi ideology. Hesse’s third wife was Jewish, and he had publicly expressed his opposition to anti-Semitism long before then. Hesse was criticized for not condemning the Nazi party, but his failure to criticize or support any political idea stemmed from his “politics of detachment.” There is no question that Hesse despised the Nazis and from the end of the 1930s, German journals stopped publishing his work. The Nazis eventually banned his writing altogether.
The Glass Bead Game was Hesse’s last novel. During the last 20 years of his life, Hesse wrote many short stories (chiefly recollections of his childhood) and poems (frequently with nature as their theme). He also wrote ironic essays about his alienation from writing (for instance, the mock autobiographies: Life Story Briefly Told and Aus den Briefwechseln eines Dichters) and spent considerable time pursuing his interest in watercolors. In one essay, after his Nobel Prize, Hesse reflected wryly on his lifelong failure to acquire a talent for idleness and speculated that his average daily correspondence exceeded 150 pages, because the prize had rocketed him to international fame. He died on 9th August 1962, aged 85, and was buried in the cemetery at San Abbondio in Montagnola.
Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps has been a popular destination for writers and artists since the 19th century. Friedrich Nietzsche spent seven summers there in the 1880s and found the inspiration for his most famous work, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” there. Thomas Mann was a frequent visitor, as was Hesse. The Waldhaus Hotel has preserved many items of Hesse memorabilia including a menu from 1956 on which it is noted that Hesse ate Wiener Backhendl and poire bourdaloue for dessert. Wiener Backhendl is breaded and fried chicken pieces which you can make in celebration if you wish. It’s straightforward enough. Poire bourdaloue is a pear tart combining whole poached pears and an almond cream. The tart shell can be simple short-crust pastry, or the all-purpose flour can be switched out for almond or chestnut flour to add extra richness.
120 gm all-purpose flour (plus extra for rolling and greasing)
60 gm icing sugar
30 gm almond powder
60 gm butter cold, diced (plus extra for greasing)
30 gm beaten egg
1 pinch salt
3 cooking pears
150 gm granulated sugar
1 vanilla pod
50 gm butter, softened
50 gm unrefined granulated sugar
50 gm almond powder
15 gm corn starch
1 medium egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
2 tbsp slivered almonds
For the crust: Put the flour, icing sugar, almond powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse them a few times to mix them then add the butter and pulse them until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Dump the mix into a bowl, add the egg and mix the dough by hand until you get a silky, homogeneous texture. Form the dough into a ball, flatten it, and wrap it in cling film. Place in the refrigerator to chill for about 20 minutes.
Butter and flour a 20 cm/8 inch pie dish.
Roll the dough out to about 8 mm/⅓ inch thick and fit it in the pie plate. Trim the edges, cover with a dish towel, and place in the refrigerator to chill.
For the poached pears: Put the sugar and vanilla pod in a saucepan, add 50 cl (2 cups) of water, bring to a boil and then simmer, stirring, until sugar the sugar has completely dissolved. Peel the pears and poach them in the syrup until tender. Remove the pears with a slotted spoon, cut them in half and remove the cores. Then let them cool.
For the almond cream: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat them on medium speed until they are well combined, forming a stiff paste.
Assembly and baking: Preheat the oven to 350F/175°C.
Slice the pears horizontally, keeping them together in their original shape, and then place them in a star-shape on the cream in the pie plate (see photo). Sprinkle the slivered almonds on the visible almond cream.
Bake for 30 minutes. Serve warm or chilled.