Full Title: The Glass Bead Game
Author: Hermann Hesse (translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston)
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics (1984) [first published in 1943 as Der Glasperlenspiel]
Number of Pages: 519
How long it took me to read: 1 month, 2 weeks
Where I bought this book: A birthday present, December 2010.
Like a Moth to a Flame
When I received this book for my birthday, I immediately placed it near the top of my tottering ‘to read’ pile. I’d gorged on a steady diet of Hermann Hesse books about six years ago, beginning with Steppenwolf (which will always remain one of my favourite works of literature, what with its magical mix of intellectualism, mystery and wildness) and continuing on through Gertrud, The Prodigy, Narziss and Goldmund and Siddhartha. I’d always intended to read The Glass Bead Game during this phase as the descriptions of it in these other books had suggested a return to the Germanic magic realism of Steppenwolf, but I’d never managed to get hold of a copy. Time moved on, new interests hooked me and I forgot all about the book until I saw it on the Amazon website last year. I craftily added it to my wishlist and began dropping hints about it just in time for my birthday.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “In some periods interviews with well-known personalities on current problems were particularly popular… Noted chemists or piano virtuosos would be queried about politics, for example, or popular actors, dancers, gymnasts, aviators, or even poets would be drawn out on the benefits and drawbacks of being a bachelor, or on the presumptive causes of financial crises, and so on. All that mattered in these pieces was to link a well-known name with a subject of current topical interest.” (p.23)
4. “In the centre of the quadrangle, arranged like the five on a die, five enormous, stately trees raised their dark cones to the sky.” (p.65)
3. “ ‘…In short, I had to pass through one of those crises in which all studies, all intellectual efforts, everything that we mean by the life of the mind, appear dubious and devalued and in which we tend to envy every peasant at the plough and every pair of lovers at evening, or every bird singing in a tree and every cicada chirping in the summer grass, because they seem to us to be living such natural, fulfilled, and happy lives.’ ” (p.97)
2. “Once Knecht confessed to his teacher that he wished to learn enough to be able to incorporate the system of I Ching into the Glass Bead Game. Elder Brother laughed. ‘Go ahead and try,’ he exclaimed. ‘You’ll see how it turns out. Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt that the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world in his bamboo grove.’ ” (p.125)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “ ‘There is truth, my boy. But the doctrine you desire, absolute, perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in the ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught.’ ” (p.80)
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.
New Word: vade mecum (noun)
Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): 1) something a person carries about for frequent or regular use; 2) a book for ready reference
Synonyms: manual, handbook
Origins: 1620–30; Latin vāde mēcum literally, ‘go with me’
As in: “The calendar was intended as a vade mecum for still inexperienced Masters in their first years in office…” (p.227)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“A good way for authors to capture my interest in their books is to begin them by criticising the vacuous nature of our modern lifestyle. Hesse’s narrator describes our contemporary times as ‘The Age of the Feuilleton.’ A quick scrabble through my online dictionary of choice revealed that a feuilleton was ‘part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature, fiction, criticism, etc’. The first of my selected quotes above reveals what Hesse is using this term to suggest. For us, a more familiar term might be the ‘cult of personality’—the idea that the opinion of anyone famous should be sought on any subject, regardless of how beyond their realm of expertise it is. Because this entertains so, so many people (for reasons that are beyond my ability to psychoanalyse), it ensures they will then spend their money on the kind of newspapers that print these articles. The quality of the opinion or the advice they are receiving in return for this daily worship is of no importance as long as it is provided by a recognizable name, face or, in some cases, body. The fact that Hesse wrote this introduction in 1943 and yet our global society, nearly 70 years later, has only become further entrenched in ‘The Age of the Feuilleton’ underlines his message. After all, Hesse won a Nobel prize for this book, yet it seems that not enough people have since deemed his words significant enough of a warning to take heed.”
“To be fair, my stilted progress through the first 150 pages of the story itself proves this book to be a hardy challenge. I imagine there are many who would flounder at the task of appreciating it. It’s not that the language is inaccessible (in fact, as far as I can tell, this translation does an excellent job of conveying the immense detail of Hesse’s vision without losing any of its subtleties) but after the initial sting of the introduction, the book labours into a slow, methodical biography of the main character, Joseph Knecht. I’ve reached page 188 now and am beginning to question where the story is going, or if it is going anywhere at all. My previous experiences of Hesse might be partly to blame for this (Steppenwolf held my attention for its full, admittedly much shorter, length) as could my hopeful (though false) expectations that a story set in the future about a game played by scholars might echo either the surrealistic dreamscapes of J. G. Ballard or the dystopian technophobia of Philip K. Dick. I also suspect that my own impatience is having a hand in it. It’s obstinately insisting that the plot should be taking a more definite direction towards some point, some message, that reverberates with the observations in the introduction. Hesse would apparently have disagreed with this, and what right does my impatience have to keep arguing with his magnum opus?
“The Glass Bead Game is set in Castalia, one enormous academic institution spread out over multiple continents, existing in almost total separation from the functional lives of the population. To truly appreciate this, I feel I need to know more about its relationship with the outside world. So far, this has only been introduced in the character of Plinio Designori (a non-Castalian visiting student), who publicly debates with Knecht over the purpose and worth of Castalia. But their arguments are not examined in enough depth to provide a sense of how the two worlds interact. Perhaps this is to keep it a mystery from the reader, just as it is to Knecht, who has never experienced life outside the confines of this academic realm. The only other ‘outside’ view of Castalia we are given comes at the monastery where Knecht spends his sabbatical, but which is equally isolated from the rest of society, both physically and ideologically. I’m certain that Hesse will have to address this relationship between Castalia and society in more detail for his story to deliver on its early themes, but I’m worried that it will arrive too late to be fully developed. The fact that I’m still reading, suggests that I care enough to find out, although I’m surprised by this as I feel less invested every night. The book feels like a dream I sink into before falling asleep and have no recollection of when I wake in the morning.”
“Here we are, several centuries in the future, and no consideration is made at all of technological or scientific advances. There is an historical gap between the first half of the twentieth century and the time of the story that is barely broached. What has happened to halt the human progress that Hesse must have seen around him in his lifetime? There is the occasional mention of cars but Castalia itself seems to adopt no technology in its teaching at all. In fact, the pedagogic methods used by the teachers are left almost entirely to the reader’s imagination, save for their dialogue with students. This is surprising, not because the story in any way requires it, but because of the detail Hesse has given to all other areas, the determination he has to show this world that he’s created from every possible direction – particularly the relationships between the characters.”
“This is a book in which you have to immerse yourself. You can tell that Hesse was a devotee of meditation, as that is exactly what this whole story appears to be: a measured, thorough yet contemplative epic, not rigorous or over-dramatised. It is as if the reader eventually has to submit and merge into the author’s own trance, in which he is considering the substance of academia through a projected simulation. There’s an interesting quote to illustrate this that seems more appropriate here than in the list at the top: ‘The purpose of meditation, after all, is adaptation of the individual to the hierarchy, and application in it might very well have cured him of his neurasthenia.’ As a teenager, I experimented briefly with meditation in the hope of discovering some external enlightenment or universal truth, (just as the young Joseph Knecht naively hopes to with the Glass Bead Game, which is no more than a long-evolved contrivance of human culture). Perhaps if I’d understood that meditation is more about the taming of the self, it would have made more sense and proved more effective*, as, had I surrendered my ‘self’ and allowed it to hypnotise me a little sooner, might also be true of the first two hundred pages of this book.”
“The ending comes abruptly, just as it promises to fulfil my hopes for a finer comparison of Knecht’s life within Castalia with his broader experience of the outside world. Does the story still require an exploration of the relationship between these two distinct worlds to fulfil its aims? I’m not sure, as I have no clear idea of what Hesse’s own conclusions were from this meditation. The following one hundred pages of poems and stories written by Knecht himself (a testament to Hesse’s accomplished imagination of the character) only pile more questions on me. Even now, while writing this review, the book stares at me accusingly, sighing that there’s more to learn within its pages and challenging me to pick it up and read it again. The damn thing didn’t even appreciate me gluing its old, wearing coversheet back on. One day, I’ll get back to you, I promise, and on that day, I might understand a little more of what you’re trying to tell me. I fear I may be too much a product of the Age of the Feuilleton to truly appreciate your secrets, no matter how much I protest it.”
*Okay, I have to admit this is doubtful – I’ve rarely seen the benefits of simply ‘fitting in’ with anything, especially not in our accepted hierarchy!