Last Novels – Hesse’s Glass Bead Game

I will go back to last poems at some point, but let’s talk about a few “last” novels over the next few weeks.  There is even a list out there of “best” last novels.  Many of the novels I will talk about here are on the list, but there are also some omissions (Mann’s Dr. Faustus for one).

First, let’s admit that a writer’s last work is not always their best.  One might think of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which is surely not up to her standard.  But great authors who have lived to old age have had a long time to hone their craft and to think about what they want to say.  And that can make for very interesting reading.

I have been re-reading Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game,  and – as many times as I have read it – it always and inspires.  Glass Bead Game was Hesse’s last book and probably his best.  It earned him a Nobel Prize and the acclaim of his peers.   Last novels have various forms, but many are “lives” of fictional characters which allow the older writer to survey the whole of life.  Hesse follows the life of his main character, Joseph Knecht, through childhood to his ascendency to Master of the Glass Bead Game and on to the end of his life. 

Hesse was writing in Switzerland in the late thirties and early forties; he seems barely aware of radio and other media.  The novel takes place in the 23rd century, in a world that collapsed in the twenty-first century after an era of continuous warfare and cultural breakdown.  Even though Hesse did not envision anything like computers and the internet, he blames the collapse on a shallow culture of distraction and a culture of “untrammeled individualism.”  More freedom “than they could stand” led to the Age of Feuilleton – the latter word meaning the section of a European newspaper devoted to light entertainment – stories about celebrities, “a major source of mental pabulum for the reader.” Sound familiar?  The newspapers also provided games for distraction.  “These games sprang from their deep need to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems….”   Freedom was the watchword, but loss of religion led to a   “passionate search for a means to confer legitimacy on this freedom.”   We want to do what we want, but we want to be sure we are doing the right and approved thing.  A paradox to be sure.  Civilization was saved by an elite group of scholars who formed a sort of monastic/academic order from which they rescued the educational system and reworked the culture to give it a sense of discipline and purpose.  Hesse’s main character rises in this fascinating structure, but, in the end, realizes its limitations.

One of the things that is intriguing about the education of the elite in Castalia, Hesse’s world of learned renunciates, is students and teachers are encouraged to write a certain kind of life review periodically – however, they are encouraged to set the review of their life in another historical period.  Hesse has appended three of these life reviews – purported to have been written by his protagonist – at the end of The Glass Bead Game,  and any or all of them are worth your time if you do not want to tackle the whole novel.  I haven’t exactly tried this kind of life review yet, but it would make for an interesting exercise for those of us who think things out through the written word.

And on the topic of writing, there is this description of the kind of writing that the older Joseph Knecht tells a younger character he is going to undertake once he escapes from Castalia and his duties as Master of the Glass Bead Game.  He describes such work as a “booklet, a little thing for friends and those who share my views”:

…the subject would not matter.  It would only be a pretext for me to seclude myself and enjoy the happiness of having a great deal of leisure.  The tone would be what mattered to me, a proper mean between the solemn and the intimate, earnestness and jest, a tone not of instruction, but of friendly communication and discourse on various things I think I have learned… I imagine, I might very well experience the joys of authorship, of the sort I foresee: an easygoing, but careful examination of things not just for my solitary pleasure, but always with a few good friends and readers in mind.  

This description from a fictional retiree (of sorts) aligns pretty well with the reasons I write this blog.  My blog is always offered as a kind of “friendly communication and discourse.”  And it is also a “pretext for seclusion” – not that we need any pretexts these days!

I will look at some other last novels over the next few weeks.  Please feel free to let me know what your favorites are.  If you are interested in Hermann Hesse (who had much to say about old age), you might refer to my earlier blog posts: Becoming and De-Becoming and Yes and Hesse and Old Age.

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