Hermann Hesse: An Illustrated Biography

Hermann Hesse: An Illustrated Biography

by Bernhard Zeller

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An illustrated biography drawing on Hesse's own work and on the recollections of his family and friends

Bernhard Zeller depicts Herman Hesse's ancestry and childhood, spent in the small German town where Hesse was born in 1877, and traces his adolescence and early manhood. He describes his relationship with his first wife, his emigration to Switzerland in protest against German militarism, his Jungian psychoanalysis, the visit to India which inspired his narrative masterpieces Siddhartha and Journey to the East, and the breakup of his marriage. Hesse's growing Iiterary reputation coincided with his brief second marriage, and with his peaceful later years in Montagnola spent in the company of his third wife, Ninon, whom he married in 1931. His stature was not fully recognized outside German-speaking countries until after his death in 1962. Zeller also recalls Hesse's circle of friends, including his famous contemporaries such as Thomas Mann and Andre Gide. This valuable documentary portrait is illustrated with photographs from Hermann Hesse's private collection. In addition, it includes a bibliography and chronology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720616163
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 09/28/2014
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Bernhard Zeller (1919-2008) was one of Germany's most renowned literary critics and biographers.

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Hermann Hesse

The Classic Biography

By Bernhard Zeller, Mark Hollebone

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2005 Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbeck bei Hamburg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1660-6



'I cannot tell my story without reaching a long way back. If it were possible I would go back farther still – into the very first years of my childhood, and beyond them into distant ancestral past.' Those are the opening words of the Prologue to Hermann Hesse's novel Demian (1919), and they apply equally well to whoever would tell its author's own story, for throughout his life and work Hesse kept his origins, childhood and youth continually in mind. In Hermann Lauscher, an early work (1901), Hesse wrote, 'Writers, more than other men, have recourse to their earliest memories,' and he himself never tired of telling of the awakening of his child hood consciousness, of his experience of youth and of the inner conflicts he struggled with as he grew towards maturity. Few writers have paid so much attention to the child's consciousness or have given the problems of education and character formation such central roles in their literary output.

Again and again, and even in old age, Hesse dreamed himself back into his sacred childhood world, and in his works frequently conjured up memories of his parents and grandparents, teachers and friends, describing with a passion and sensibility no biographer could ever achieve the details of his childhood landscape with its river, its bridge and its gable-roofed houses. On his sickbed in Sils-Maria, the eighty-year-old's thoughts returned to his birthplace, attempting to recall its appearance house by house. 'Leafing through my scrapbook, conjuring up, contemplating and arranging the treasury of pictures my memory snapped back to former times' – became a consciously enacted game that disclosed new things and brought him the joy of recovering what he had thought lost.

But reflecting on the years of youth and childhood was not only a harmless game played with the 'sunlit past', but also the most important ingredient of a literary output whose objective was the formulation and penetration through literature of the writer's own world of sense and experience. 'My purpose is to delineate that piece of humanity and love, of instinct and sublimation, that I know of from my own experience, and for whose truth, sincerity and actuality I can vouch.' Hesse's writing is self-portrayal and self-analysis, a continuous and watchful debate with himself; it is a poetical and humane self-confession that has few equals in twentieth-century literature. Consciously, Hesse restricted his writings to what he could draw from his own immediate environment and from his own experience of life. He wrote no historical novels, nor even contemporary ones. He sought no material that was not a consequence of first-hand experience, and had no interest in constructing new fragments of reality as is usual in imaginative literature. He was not concerned with the social problems of the modern world, but deeply with the individual's problems in that world. Through self-involvement and the elucidation of personal detail, he expanded the compass of inner reality beyond the merely autobiographical, and by revealing his own intellectual and spiritual constitution, did the same in part for that of our own times.

Hesse has left us neither diary nor memoirs. Nor, beyond two short autobiographical sketches ('Kurzgefassten Lebenslauf' – 'Curriculum Vitae'; and 'Kindheit des Zauberers' – 'The Magician's Childhood'), did he leave us an account of his life. But much of what he wrote tells us clearly about himself. Kurgast (Patient) and Nürnberger Reise (Journey to Nuremberg) relate his own experiences, and – in an important sense – most of his poetry and his novels are fragments of a large-scale self-portrait, contributions to a personal confession. With these at our disposal, additional sources are hardly necessary. The details of the writer's inner and public life can be sifted from his writings. Indeed, they are inseparable.

Hermann Hesse was born in 1877 in Calw, a small town in the northern region of the Black Forest. His father, Johannes Hesse, born in 1847, was a doctor's son and came from Estland. His mother, Marie Gundert, was born in India, the daughter of a missionary. The Hesse family was of Baltic German descent; the Gunderts were Swabians (though Marie Gundert's father married a girl who was part Welsh and part Swiss). The two families had met through their common involvement in missionary work. Hermann Gundert, the father, was a missionary, as was Karl Isenberg, Marie Gundert's first husband, who had died young. And it was the prospect of missionary work that had led Hermann's father, Johannes Hesse, to leave his Baltic homeland.

Hermann Hesse was given the Christian name of his two grandfathers. Both men influenced him strongly – though he never actually knew his paternal grandfather, who died at the age of 94 in 1896: '... the best stories I ever heard as a child were those my father told us about him and Weissenstein, where he lived. Though I never saw my grandfather, his house, the town be lived in, or his garden with its maple and its green benches, yet I know Weissenstein and its neighbourhood better than many towns and districts that I have actually seen. And though I had no particular enthusiasm for historical thought, and never interested myself in my ancestry, I have always felt particularly close to this wonderful man.' Dr Carl Hermann Hesse, whose forefathers came from Lübeck, was a doctor and an Imperial Russian Privy Counsellor. Monika Hunnius, his niece, described him in her memoirs as an idiosyn cratic, gay, active, sociable and pious man. At the end of his life, Hesse, who possessed a manuscript copy of his grandfather's memoirs, left us this picture of him in Ein paar Erinnerungen an Arzte (Some Memories of Doctors): 'Even at the end of his life he remained young, spirited, amusing, gentle, and relaxed. At the age of eighty-three he climbed one of his trees to saw off a branch, and fell out of it, with the saw, without suffering any harm. He founded an orphanage in his hometown, Weissenstein, drank Rhine wine on festive occasions, gave extempore speeches in verse form, observed his religious duties and gave to the poor – he was known as "the doctor who gives everything away" ... Right into old age this man radiated zest for life, trust in God, authority and love.'

Hesse's maternal grandfather, Dr Hermann Gundert, who, like his forefathers and other members of the Gundert family, achieved high status in the annals of the Württemberg church, was also a convert to the pietism of J.A. Bengel. His conversion must have been preceded by a painful inner struggle, for this highly gifted young theologian, an admirer of Goethe, who 'had copied out the piano arrangement of The Magic Flute with a freshly cut goose quill', was at the time a student of David Friedrich Strauss in the Maulbronn seminary. In Grossväterliches (My Grandfather), a short memoir of his grandfather, Hesse published a poem that the nineteen-year-old Hermann Gundert had written in 1833 as a student. 'The expert will readily see that the mind this poem expresses is one influenced by Hegel and India, and familiar with Hölderlin. The writer of these successful verses wrote no more such poems. These youthful and gifted lines were written during the most agitated and uncertain period of his life, shortly before the final conversion which led the enthusiastic pantheist to devote his life from then onwards to the Indian mission.'

In 1836, Hermann Gundert arrived as a missionary on the Malabar Coast, became a pioneer of the Pietist missions to India and spent many years working in the hot countries of the East. It was there that he met his wife, Julie Dubois, an ascetic and strict young Calvinist from a Neuchatel wine-growing family who tackled her missionary work with passionate enthusiasm. On his return from Germany, Gundert took over the direction of the Calwer publishing house. He edited missionary magazines and, thanks to his familiarity with numerous European and Asiatic languages, was able to compile over the next thirty-five years a Malayalam dictionary that to this day is counted among the basic tools of Indian linguistic research. Grandfather Gundert 'was as deeply immersed in his thicket of mysteries as was his face in his white thicket of a beard, and from his eyes there flowed sometimes a universal sadness, sometimes a cheerful wisdom, a unique knowledge and a divine villainy', wrote Hesse in 'The Magician's Childhood'. And elsewhere he says: 'In this grandfather, who died when I was sixteen, I came to know not only a wise and, despite his great learning, a very understanding old man, but also an echo, a legacy, of the remarkable combination of material frugality and spiritual splendour that characterized the Swabian milieu – in my grandfather's case, partially concealed beneath religious sensibilities and his work for the Kingdom of God, but a living thing nevertheless. The Swabian disposition, rooted in the grammar schools, the monastic seminaries and in the famous Tübingen Stift, had held itself intact for almost two hundred years, constantly increasing and enriching itself through tradition. I refer not only to the world of Swabian presbyteries and schools, to which men of the calibre of Bengel, Oetinger and Blumhardt belonged, but to that world as a whole, which also numbers Hölderlin, Hegel and Mörike among its sons.'

The father was different. 'He stood alone ... a little apart, a suffering man and a seeker, learned and kind-hearted, without guile, passionate in the service of truth ... he was always a good and wise man ... My father did not speak Indian dialects to my mother, but English or a pure, clear, gentle, beautiful German of Baltic inflection. Through this way of speaking he won me to him and educated me. My father was the model that, full of admiration and zeal, I sought to imitate, too zealously, though I knew that my roots were more deeply planted on my mother's side where the soil was mysterious and rich. My mother was full of music – quite unlike my father, who could not sing at all.'

Johannes Hesse's decision, after attending the famous and fashionable cathedral school in Reval, to attach himself to the very different spiritual and mental climate of Basle with the object of training himself for missionary work was reached with great difficulty. But in time he, too, travelled to India, where he studied the life and speech of the Badaga and was quite soon accepted in the Mangalore seminary for the training of preachers. But his delicate constitution could not withstand the climate. In 1873, after three years in the mission field, he was forced to return to Germany, where he settled in Calw with the job of assisting Dr Gundert in his publishing projects. In 1874 he married Dr Gundert's daughter Marie who, since the death of her first husband, had lived in her father's house in Calw with her two sons, Theodor and Karl. Though Johannes Hesse was happy in his marriage and got on well with his father-in-law, the Swabian mentality made him uneasy. 'He was a Baltic German, a Russo-German, and never, though surrounded by people – including his wife and children – whose way of speaking differed from his, did he pick up anything of it, but maintained instead his pure, refined and beautiful High German. Though the way he spoke did not endear him to everyone who came to our house, we loved it and were proud of it. We loved it just as we loved his slim and fragile figure, his high and noble forehead, and the clear, frequently suffering look in his eyes, a look that was open and honest, a reminder of the need for decent behaviour and noble bearing, a constant appeal to what was best in others.'

Marie Gundert-Hesse was small and lively, and had her French mother's lively temperament. She bore six children by her second husband, of whom two died in infancy. For forty years she kept a diary; from this record, part of which was later published by her daughter, we have a characteristic picture of this likeable woman. The diaries also contain the earliest mentions of her son Hermann who was born two years after his sister Adele, the first child. 'On Monday 2 July 1877, after a long and difficult day, God in his goodness presented us with the long-awaited child Hermann at 6.30 p.m., a large, heavy, beautiful boy. He was immediately hungry, and he turned his bright, blue eyes towards the light, moving his head by himself. A fine example of a healthy, robust little lad.'

'I was born in the early evening of a warm July day, and it is the temperature of that day that, however unconsciously, I have all my life loved and wanted, missing it sorely when it was not to be had.'

The parental and grandparental world in which the young boy grew up was both small and spacious. The external circumstances were very simple. The pennies had to be counted, even though material possessions were accorded small value and the family knew how to live frugally. But family life in the Hesse household was rich in the qualities that ensure childhood security. 'It was,' wrote Hesse to his sister Adele in 1946, 'our grandfather's gentle wisdom, our mother's inexhaustible imagination and love and our father's sensitive conscience and his familiarity with suffering, that educated us.' And elsewhere: 'Rays from many worlds intersected in this [the parental] house. In it people prayed, read the Bible, studied, researched into Indian philology, played music; Buddha and Lao Tse were familiar names, guests arrived from many countries bringing with them the aroma of distant places, strange travelling cases of leather and plaited bast and the sounds of foreign languages. In it, too, the poor were fed, parties were held, scholarship and fairy stories lived cheek by jowl ... It was a world that had the firm stamp of German and Protestant influence and yet had connections everywhere in the world; it was a complete, holy and healthy world, united in itself ... It was rich and many-sided, but it was also well-ordered, precisely balanced about its centre and it belonged to us just as the air and the sunshine, the wind and the rain, belonged to us.'

In the spring of 1881, Johannes Hesse was called to Basle to edit the missionary magazine. He was also required to teach German language and literature in the mission's headquarters. 'Home to me was Swabia and Basle on the Rhine,' wrote Hesse later. In his brief memoir of Basle he says: 'From 1881 until 1886 we lived in Basle on the Müllerweg, opposite the Spalenringweg. In those days the railway line to Alsace ran between them ... The countryside began quite near our house. A farmyard out towards Allschwil, and a gravel pit not far from it, afforded opportunities for country games. And the enormous archery ground – how enormous it seemed to me then! – that in those days had not yet been developed, was where I hunted butterflies and we all played cowboys and Indians.'

In the chapter in Hermann Lauscher called 'My Childhood', and again in the short story 'Der Bettler' ('The Beggar'), Hesse provides us with a warm description of his Basle years. He tells us about the games he played and about his first day at the mission's kindergarten, of his walks to the cathedral, of childhood anxieties and of his first clash with parental authority. With gratitude, he recalls his mother's skill as a storyteller: 'Where, I wonder, do mothers acquire this cheerful and compelling art, this pictorial imagination, this inexhaustible magic? Mother, I see you still, your beautiful head inclined towards me, yourself slim, submissive and patient; and your incomparable brown eyes!'

The young Hesse had a lively imagination, was full of energy and spirit, and the mixed inheritance of characteristics that he had received from parents and more remote ancestors soon made itself felt: '... the boy shows liveliness, physical robustness and strength of will, and in addition a perceptiveness that is astounding in a four-year-old. Where will it lead?' asked his mother. On 27 March 1882, she noted in her diary that 'little Hermann played truant from school and for a punishment I shut him in the spare room. Later he said, "There's not much point in shutting me in there as I can have a nice time looking out of the window." Recently while in bed in the early evening he sang a song whose rune and words he made up himself. When Daddy came in he said, "I sing as beautifully as the Sirens, and am just as naughty, don't you think?"' In a letter from Johannes Hesse dated 14 November 1883, we read that 'Hermann, who is considered at the kindergarten to be the perfect child, has become extremely difficult to cope with at home. Humiliating though it would be, I am seriously thinking of putting him in a corrective establishment, or in some other house. We are too nervous, too weak, for him; our domestic life is not sufficiently disciplined and orderly. All agree that he is gifted: he gazes at the moon and the clouds, improvises at long stretches on the harmonium, can draw very well with pencil or quill, sings well when he wishes and is never at a loss for a poem.'


Excerpted from Hermann Hesse by Bernhard Zeller, Mark Hollebone. Copyright © 2005 Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbeck bei Hamburg. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations 9

Ancestry and Childhood 11

The Crises of Youth 23

The Bookseller 35

The Bodensee Years 57

The First World War 77

New Beginnings in Ticino 89

The Steppenwolf 103

Montagnola 115

The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game 129

The Final Years 149

Chronology 161

Further Reading 165

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