Hermann Hesse, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, was born on July 2, 1877 in the German city of Calw, and in 1924 acquired Swiss nationality. In 1891 he entered the evangelical theological seminary at Maulbronn Monastery, from which he would escape a few months later with the aim of becoming a writer.
His parents, who had raised him in the rigidity of Lutheran Pietism, sent him to a Gymnasium (as secondary establishments were known in Germany) near the city of Stuttgart. In 1904 he published his first existential novel entitled “Peter Camenzind”. Two years later he publishes the following work of fiction with the name of “Under the wheels”, where he lets his personal experiences with suicide transcend, one of whose attempts in 1892 motivated his mother to admit him to a psychiatric clinic.
In 1903, at the age of 26, Hesse established the first epistolary contact with his Austrian colleague Stefan Zweig, who at that time was pursuing a doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Vienna. Hesse was introduced to his literary work through the Neue Freie Presse newspaper, whose editor was Theodore Herzl, a leading figure in the Austrian Jewish National Movement. Zweig’s family, unlike Hesse’s, enjoyed a comfortable social and economic situation in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.
Hesse tells his new friend that he has little to tell him about his recent life, which was highly influenced by the lyrical romanticism of Novalis. This is how he summarizes it in a letter from February 1903: “I adore the old Italian novelists and the German romantics, but I esteem even more the cities of Italy and, much more than all that, I love the mountains, the rivers, the gorges, the sea, sky, clouds, flowers, trees and animals”.
The following year, Zweig wrote to his friend about his desire to get to know Spain, and invited him to accompany him to what he sensed was “the most beautiful country in Europe”. According to the essayist María Esther Vázquez, Zweig’s literary work became well known in the Hispanic world, especially through the translations of the Swiss Alfredo Cahn (1902-1975) who had settled in Argentina since the 1920s. In 1940 Zweig would give lectures in the cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario in the company of Cahn.
In 1916, during the course of the First World War, while Zweig was in exile in Switzerland, Hesse was involved in a deep personal crisis after the death of his father and the serious illness of his son, which in turn caused a severe picture of schizophrenia to his first wife, the prominent Swiss photographer María Bernoulli, whom he had married in 1904 and divorced in 1922. The writer, nine years younger than María, expressed about her that, “at least she is my equal in terms of training, life experience and intelligence, he is older than me and in every way an independent and active personality.” They had three children together, Bruno, Martin and Heiner.
Demian, the novel that would make him world famous, began to be written in 1915 and was first published as an autobiography two years later under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair. In 1920, after several reissues, the novel acquires its definitive name. In the European autumn of 1917, Hesse had met the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, then 42 years old, and he points out that, together with the doctor, “I am living now, in the midst of a difficult situation in my life that I can often hardly bear. , the shock of analysis”. Between 1916 and 1917 Hesse would take more than seventy analysis sessions with Jung’s assistant, Josef B. Lang. Those encounters would have a central impact on his later works, as well as the paintings he made until his death in 1962.
Coincidence or not, in 1917 Jorge Luis Borges was about to finish his secondary studies at Collège Calvin, the oldest public school in Geneva founded by Calvin in the mid-16th century. Years later, the author of El Aleph would write that he first encountered the work of Hermann Hesse that year before the end of the Great War. He characterized it as “bildungsroman, novels whose central theme is the formation of a spirit.” About Carl Jung, Borges expressed that “I read him as a kind of mythology, or as a kind of museum or encyclopedia of curious knowledge.”
Hesse was a great critic of the war from the beginning. He published numerous newspaper articles with a strong pacifist tone and against the German government, who accused him of being a traitor to the fatherland, despite collaborating from the Swiss Red Cross with German prisoners and sick people. At the same time he received the congratulations and support of the French writer Romain Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Back in the days of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Zweig wrote to his friend Thomas Mann, the noted German writer who was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature and recently exiled in Switzerland, stating that “the lie brazenly spreads its wings and the truth has been proscribed; the sewers are open and men breathe their pestilence like a perfume”.
In February 1942 Zweig was convinced of the imminent triumph of Nazism in Europe, and in the grip of a deep depression he committed suicide with his wife in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis where they lived. He would not get to witness his friend Hermann Hesse being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, a year after the defeat and suicide of Adolf Hitler.
A year after the death of his friend Hesse, he published in Switzerland “The Glass Bead Game”, a utopian novel in which he posits the development of a political, pedagogical and spiritual system inspired by a humanist environment that had been lost in the first decades of the 20th century.
Thomas Mann went so far as to maintain that “The Steppenwolf”, a novel published by Hesse in 1927 shortly after the divorce from his second wife, “has nothing to envy in terms of its experimental audacity to Ulysses by James Joyce or The false purses of Andre Gide”. In turn, Pope Benedict XVI said that The Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game were two of the main novels that influenced his life.
Hermann Hesse is one of the most widely read writers in the history of German (and world) literature with more than 120 million copies sold and translated into more than sixty languages. To this must be added the more than five hundred doctoral theses and thousands of articles published on his work, close to 50 volumes of essays, novels and poetry.
His figure and legacy are referenced today as a beacon for the counterculture movement of the 1960s and the environmental movements.. His novel “Siddartha” published in 1922 showed a new path for the decadent spirit of alienation and hopelessness that was breathed in Europe after the end of the first war.
On August 9, 1962, the last day of his life, Hesse was in the garden of his house in the Swiss town of Montagnola. At 85 years old, and with little physical strength due to leukemia, the writer unsuccessfully tried to pull a branch from a tree. A few minutes later he went to his desk and wrote what would become his last poem, “Crack of a broken branch”, which I transcribe below.
broken splintered branch,
that hangs year after year.
Dry rustles in the wind its song,
no leaves, no bark,
threadbare and withered, for a long life,
for a long exhausted death.
Rigid sounds its tenacious song,
stubborn sounds, fearful in secret,
for a summer,
for one more winter
On Saturday, January 8, my mother passed away at the age of 94. One day he told me that Demian had been the book he had read the most times in his life.
We would love to thank the writer of this post for this awesome material
Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Prize winner is reborn six decades after his death