When I was a teen-ager, most of my friends were reading something by Herman Hesse—the most popular titles then were Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. The books appealed to the dreamy, druggy adolescent sense of self-involvement that naturally arose at that age. Later, in my twenties, looking back, I thought of them as silly and somewhat banal. From time to time I would eye the thick pages of Magister Ludi, but I would always demur, not ready to deal with that much woo-woo at once.
The other day, I saw Demian sitting on my bookshelf, one of Hesse’s shorter novels, which I hadn’t read since I was a teen, but which I remembered as being my favorite of Hesse’s novels. I was in the mood for reading something short, and I thought I would look at it again for a few reasons: 1) to see whether the book held up as a novel; 2) to see if I held up as a reader, and 3) to look at it from a writer’s point of view to see how it was constructed. Would I still think it was worthwhile, but for different reasons from when I was a teen, or would I, as I did in my twenties, see it as New Age-y nonsense? Okay, so I’m being impolite.
I was surprised by my reactions to reading it this time. The first surprise was that I found the book absolutely compelling. From the first pages, I was drawn in to the story of a youth who was trying to understand the darker forces of his own and other’s natures. And though at times I had to put the book down for awhile, I was eager to pick it up again. I wasn’t putting it down because it was boring, but on the contrary because it was too interesting, and I felt I needed time to digest it as I went along. At the same time, the book’s shortcomings were very clear to me—the lack of any political analysis, the Jungian simplifications of life that teeter on the edge of, and sometimes fall into, the well of banality, the repressed homoeroticism that is never really addressed, the stubborn refusal to ground sexual feeling into sexual action, the German Romanticism of the period which today seems hopelessly sappy, all these are glaring, and my getting older didn’t make them go away.
But here’s the thing. I was still compelled to read. And I was compelled by the kernel of truth that the novel contains, so deep and so important that it stays and lingers as a feeling not able to be articulated, but a feeling that something of life that was known yet previously unsaid or pushed out of consciousness was brought back into view again. Exactly like a drug trip or an a-ha moment of meditative or otherwise enlightenment.
And now with my being older, and being interested in the writing process itself, I wanted to know how Hesse was doing this. The thing is so simple—about forty thousand words, and yet its impact is considerable. I wanted to pull it apart like a child pulls apart a favorite toy, and yet when I did that with this novel I felt like I was pulling apart a dandelion, for there doesn’t seem to be anything to see.
The book is, for all its apparent mysticism and near banality, transparent. There is no hiding behind words and sentences. As a writer, over the years I have become so much more conscious of word selection and the crafting of sentences and paragraphs, and yet here, it seems like nothing. There is no memorable vocabulary or phrase; no structuring of sentences or elements that seems to be writerly. It is seemingly just a story, that is all. A story that a boy might tell. There doesn’t seem to be any art in it. And yet it is as compelling as someone sitting across the table from you telling you this extraordinary thing that has happened to them. There is no apparent sense of craft.
And yet at the same time, there is no clumsiness of craft that distracts from the story, either, and that causes the reader to stumble. It is writing that is decidedly (at least in the English translation that I read) pure; it never calls attention to itself, it never shines, but like an ordinary staircase it leads you along. When Hesse first published the book, he published it under the name of the storytelling youth of the book. It’s a craft of apparently no craft.
The particular lesson I take as a writer from this book is this: for all the attention we pay to words, sentences, paragraphs, the kernel of real truth about life is what ultimately determines the true power of a story. There is not only one way to do it, there are many; but in reading Demian I was forced to confront how powerful words can be when there is strong truth and revelation underneath them, and they are put out in plain view.