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About the Author
Damion Searls has translated many classic twentieth-century authors, including Proust, Rilke, and Thomas Bernhard. His translation of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key was a New York Times Notable Book and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Searls lives in Brooklyn.
Ralph Freedman is a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University and the author of an acclaimed biography of Hermann Hesse. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.
James Franco is an Oscar-nominated actor and director. His writing has appeared in Esquire, the Wall Street Journal, and McSweeney’s. Franco lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
My friend Demian
I remember reading Demian for the first time. It was the beginning of summer, I had turned nineteen in April, and I was working at a café on the UCLA campus, selling deli sandwiches, microwaved pizza, cheap Mexican hash, and glistening Chinese. I had spent the previous school year studying English literature but had recently taken the plunge into the raging sea of film acting and was freshly making my way through the tide pools of acting school. I had not auditioned for the UCLA theater program and thus had been forced to take classes in the Valley, and just before the spring quarter at UCLA had ended I decided to devote myself full time to acting. My parents didn’t object, saying only that they would support me as long as I studied at the university, but if I wanted to be an artist I had to find my own way.
Working at the north campus eatery, I was serving the students who once had been my classmates. My boss was a graduate student with a shaved head except in two spots that he dyed red and gelled into six-inch horns. I’ll call him Bill. I remember liking Bill if only because he was closer to my age than any boss I’d ever had, but he was still a boss. I was working to support my dream (one of a few) to become a film actor, and my employer looked like the devil.
On my breaks I read plays by O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, and anyone else who might help me understand my chosen profession. It turned out that the grinding aspect of the job was not Bill’s constant watch as I loaded meat and mustard on sandwiches or scooped chili rellenos from the tin, depending on the day of the week; it was the boredom. I know now that I learned much about responsibility, dedication, and service from that humble job, but back then I had dreams of grandeur. I had left school in order to become the best actor in the world, and here I was, back on campus serving the very people who had been inviting me to frat parties a few months prior. I seemed to have taken five steps backwards, and the fact that I had left a top-rated university to join an army of hopefuls trying to break into a famously competitive industry often seemed like a fool’s quest.
On the wall next to the pizza service section was a framed photo of an elderly Marlon Brando being led by a man in a suit and a football helmet through a throng of photographers and gawkers. I’m pretty sure it was taken around the time of Brando’s son’s murder trial, but it inspired me as I served the slop: Brando was the pinnacle of film acting, and his picture was a reminder of the great tradition I hoped to be a part of.
After a couple months I started reading Demian. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but one day, without warning, I hung up my apron and walked out the back, never to return. I had planned to work that day, so once taking my exit I didn’t know where to go. With Demian folded in my pocket, I headed into Westwood, full of the passion of what I had done. On the edge of campus I ran into one of my former classmates, a girl I once had flirted with, sunning herself on the grass. I told her what had happened, but it didn’t seem to register. I felt like I had taken another step away from a conformist life and another step toward artistic freedom, but, talking to her, I sounded to myself like I was an immature kid who had quit his job.
At a café I jumped back into Demian, and I felt like I was understood again. Emil Sinclair, the narrator, is also on a search. His vacillation between good and bad, between expected pursuits and his own artistic path, seemed to mirror mine. Like so many young people in the ninety years since its publication, I felt like Hermann Hesse was describing my own interior and exterior struggles. Sinclair had Demian to help guide him, but I had yet to find my artistic mentor. Instead I had the book.
Demian became my Demian, a voice I could listen to and contemplate as I tried to find my way from childhood to adulthood and into the world of art. Of course there were many turns in the road aheadI would get a job at McDonald’s, get work as an actor, grow to hate much of the work I did, expand my artistic horizons (Hesse became not just a writer but also a celebrated painter)but reading Demian was an important step in the direction of a life that resonated with my ideals.
What People are Saying About This
“[An] excellent new translation.” —The Times Literary Supplement
Reading Group Guide
His very name combines the forces of evil ("Sin") and the power of light ("clair"). As he moves slowly from innocent youth to knowing adulthood, Emil Sinclair-the hero and narrator of Hermann Hesse's novel Demian-moves perpetually between the temptations of the flesh and the promise of radical religious redemption. His first brush with evil comes at the hands of a wicked older boy, Franz Kromer, who assumes despotic control over Sinclair's life by threatening to divulge an unbearable secret. On the verge of despair, Sinclair is rescued by an aloof but charismatic schoolmate named Max Demian, whose sharp intelligence and revolutionary ideas about God and morality lure the younger boy into uncharted psychological territory. As their friendship deepens, Demian assumes an ambiguous role of both mentor and tempter, prompting Sinclair to question every value that he has heretofore accepted and gradually to reject the safe but stultifying world that Sinclair's parents have created for him. Sometimes concretely realistic, sometimes almost hallucinatory in its strangeness, Sinclair's journey to adulthood unfolds in astonishing fashion as he experiences the depths of guilt and bewilderment and the pinnacles of spiritual ecstasy. Yet just as Sinclair appears to be reaching a state of moral completeness and spiritual satisfaction, his country is thrown into a catastrophic war, from which nothing he has come to value is likely to emerge unscathed.
Along his winding path to maturity, Sinclair is shaped by a fascinating variety of friends and mentors: Beatrice, a radiant girl whom he views from afar and who comes to embody his holiest ideals; Alfons Beck, a dissolute young man who leads Sinclair down the path of corruption; Pistorius, a brilliant organist whose music and philosophic lessons mark a turning point in Sinclair's thoughts and feelings; and Demian's mother Eva, who appears to Sinclair as both a present-day Madonna and a primitive seductress. Their influences combine to lead Sinclair to a startling but seemingly inescapable conclusion: that the only true goal of life is self-exploration, and that every person must resolutely discover his or her own destiny, whether that pursuit turns him into a prophet or a madman, a poet or a criminal. The road may lead anywhere, so long as it takes the traveler forward.
Revolutionary in its philosophy, ruthless in its investigation of the human spirit, Demian has long been recognized as one of the great novels about moral education and mis-education, a unique chronicle of one person's trip on the winding, treacherous road toward maturity. Now, thanks to a bold but sensitive new translation by Damion Searls, readers can now view the world of Demian in an unprecedented light. Through Hesse's timeless classic, they can discover in Emil Sinclair, in Max Demian, and most importantly in themselves, the miracle and uniqueness of selfhood in the modern world.
ABOUT HERMANN HESSE
Born in Württemburg, Germany, in 1877, Hermann Hesse was twenty when he began a career of fiction writing that spanned nearly forty-five years. Renowned for his insights into human psychology and his advocacy of expansive self-exploration, Hesse remains one of the most frequently translated and most avidly read German writers of the twentieth century. His world-famous novels include Demian, Klingsor's Last Summer, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and The Glass Bead Game. In 1946, Hesse was honored with both the Goethe Prize (arguably Germany's most prestigious cultural prize) and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hermann Hesse died in Switzerland in 1962.
- Emil Sinclair, the hero of Demian, decides that the one true task of every person is to find the way to himself or herself. Can a life so deeply devoted to self seeking ever be truly heroic?
- Hesse's novel is told from Sinclair's perspective, and it tells the story of Sinclair's growth and education. Why, then, do you think Hesse chose to name the novel after the highly important, but still secondary character Max Demian?
- In his brief preface, Hesse argues that the slaughter of human beings in war arises out of our failure to appreciate the unique value of every human being. Yet later in the novel he suggests that a cataclysmic war may well be necessary if human beings are to rise above their current limitations and discover a new age of freedom. In the book's last chapter, when the war comes, it is shown as an intoxicating, exhilarating event, through which all Germans become brothers. Is Hesse's view of war consistent? What might explain his inability to deal with it more coherently?
- In his youth, Sinclair sees his world as divided between the safe, beautiful world of home and the cruel, frightening world that lies outside. How does Sinclair later deal with the duality of good and evil? Does he ever succeed in uniting the two sides of existence?
- How does Sinclair's loss of childhood innocence resemble the fall of Adam in the Bible? In what crucial ways do the two stories differ?
- Many of Hesse's chapter titles are inspired by the Bible, and the story refers continually to biblical figures, for instance, Cain and Abel from Genesis and the good and bad thieves from the story of the Crucifixion. Is Hesse using his novel to reinforce the lessons of the Bible, to challenge biblical teachings, or actually to try to replace them with a new spiritual creed?
- Throughout Demian, Hesse seems to invite comparisons between Demian and Jesus Christ. Near the end of the book, Demian's mother Eva is offered as a modern Eve or perhaps a rather drastically revised Madonna figure. How do Demian and Eva embody the values of the new religion that Hesse suggests in the novel?
- What values are represented by Sinclair's father? What traits are personified in Sinclair's mother? What, in each of his parents, does he feel ultimately compelled to reject, and why?
- Demian predicts that the current, degraded life of Europeans, corrupted by technology and the instincts of the herd, will soon pass away and that the future will reshape itself around free individuals like himself and Sinclair. Hesse wrote this prophecy almost a hundred years ago. Why, in your opinion, has it failed to come true? Might it ever come true? Why or why not?
- Artistic expression, whether in the form of Sinclair's painting or Pistorius's organ playing, plays a significant role in the novel. Why is art so important in Sinclair's life and development?
- The personages who exert the most powerful influence on Sinclair's moral and psychological journey-Demian, Pistorius, and Eva-have sometimes been criticized for being elaborate symbols instead of fully rounded characters. Is this true? May it just be that Sinclair's self-centered way of seeing the world tends to flatten other characters out? Would the book have had the same impact if Hesse had developed these secondary characters more completely?
- Sinclair and Demian are fascinated by the spirit of Abraxas, which they believe may be greater than both God and the devil because it comprehends both the realm of good and the world of evil. What might it be like to live in a culture that worshipped such a god? Would it be as liberating as Sinclair imagines, or would its fascinations with the dark side lead to a catastrophe?
- An intriguing minor character in Demian is the morally tormented Knauer, who seeks in vain for purity and whom Sinclair saves from suicide. Why was it important for Hesse to include Knauer in the novel?
- Eva's relationship to Sinclair is deeply unsettling to some readers, since she acts both as a surrogate mother and as a seductress. How are we to understand Eva in the context of Hesse's philosophy, and can the moral problems she presents be finally resolved?
- Although critics regard Demian as a novel of World War I, Hesse dedicated only a handful of pages at the end of the novel to the war itself. Given that those pages contain some of the most exciting action in the book, would Hesse have been wise to devote more space to the war? Why do you think he chose not to?
- Hesse's work enjoyed a great rebirth of interest in America in the 1960s. Why might this have been so?