cover image Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow

Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow

Gunnar Decker, trans. from the German by Peter Lewis. Harvard Univ., $39.95 (800p) ISBN 978-0-674-73788-4

Biographer Decker (Francis von Assisi) offers what will likely be the definitive biography of German author Hermann Hesse (1877–1962). Keen to trace the autobiographical elements in Hesse’s writings, Decker gives a nuanced study of his subject as, variously, a youth rebelling against his parents’ devoutly religious beliefs to devote himself to art; an intellectual skeptical of the rhetoric driving two world wars; and a choleric expatriate who “spent most of his life living in Switzerland,” despised fame (winning the Nobel Prize, Hesse lamented, only made “my life four times more onerous than previously”), and could barely tolerate people. Decker also intertwines observations on Hesse’s unique spiritual convictions—a pantheism drawn from Goethe, an interest in Eastern philosophy expressed most clearly in Siddhartha, and a late Romantic humanism—with his own headily philosophical reflections on literature and art (e.g., “It is the mythical dimensions of reality, the truth of the legend, that literature lays bare”). In Hesse’s private life, he explores Hesse’s pain over being deprived of affection from his mother, who scorned his work as sinful, and his deeply contradictory nature, which combined a longing for admiration with an aversion to intimacy. Decker restores depth and context to an author much maligned in his own time and much misinterpreted by later eras. (Nov.)