Steppenwolf Review: Intro
Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse’s modernist existential masterpiece, was written during the Weimar years in Germany and enjoyed a considerable resurgence in popularity as a counter-culture classic during the swinging sixties. As such, the 237-page novel is preceded by a certain reputation. My interest was piqued whilst I was studying aspects of Weimar literature and I read a brief synopsis describing the main character, with whom I felt I could instantly identify (i.e miserable, loner, not excited by anything etc.).
The title refers to the German name for the steppe wolf – or the wolf of the steppes – which, from what I can gather is a representation of a kind of duality in a person’s psyche. The wolf represents animalistic urges or desires and throughout the story the main character, Harry Haller, is continually struggling with inner conflict. He is resigned to a life of unhappiness and has thoughts of suicide, yet wonders why he has not gone through with it.
I decided to write this quick review of Steppenwolf as I found it was a challenging read that it would be beneficial to reflect upon.
The narrative is presented through a discovered manuscript, which is found by Haller’s landlord after he moves out of his digs. The landlord also adds his own comments to the story and at one point Haller describes the content of a book he acquires – so there are several pages wherein the reader has stepped through three narrative perspectives. It’s easy enough to follow, but I found Hesse’s prose (or at least the translation) to be fairly dry at times. Given that much of the book appealed to me and seemed very relevant to my own life, I struggled to get through it.
One thing that is abundantly clear though: Herman Hesse is a very, very smart man. I knew little of his background before reading Steppenwolf, but the way in which he dissects the psyche is truly incredible. As I mentioned previously, I felt myself able to identify with the main character over and over again – something which I feel reflects the brutal honesty and accurate insight which Hesse seems to possess. Of course, the protagonists alliterative name suggests that Hesse is in fact writing about himself and this would explain the focus on Haller’s consciousness, but without reading more into the author’s background I couldn’t go any further into this.
Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I finished the book and I don’t have much else to say on it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Steppenwolf is a difficult read, but something in the prose just made it a little laborious. For me, the most fascinating aspects of it were of a historical context. Hesse’s characters talk of the inevitability of ‘the next war’ and at times touch upon a commonly held belief at the time that Germany did not lose the Great War. That being said, the novel is hardly portentous and I feel that, more than anything, it reflects the author’s dissatisfaction with the political situation in German. But then, what do I know?