I read Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, an intriguing 1927 novel about a man, Harry Haller, who feels so much like an outsider that he identifies himself as a “wolf of the steppes”, or Steppenwolf in German.
“I am indeed the Steppenwolf that I often call myself, a beast that has strayed into an alien and incomprehensible world and is no longer able to find its home, the air it is used to breathing or the food it likes to eat.”
This “man at odds with society” premise has led many people to identify with the book (including, presumably, the American rock band of Born to Be Wild fame, which I have to admit was the only Steppenwolf I knew about for a good part of my life).
But there’s a lot more to the novel than a protest against society’s stifling conventions. In fact, the way that Hesse wrote the book actually undercuts a lot of the angst Harry Haller is experiencing, suggesting that his suffering, although understandable, is unnecessary and can be overcome.
The structure of Steppenwolf is very interesting. We start with an “Editor’s Preface”, which is actually part of the novel. It’s a detached view of Harry Haller from the perspective of his landlady’s nephew, an apparently sensible, conventional young man who gives a sensible, conventional view of the notebooks he’s found in Haller’s room. Then we move on to the notebooks themselves, subtitled “For mad people only.”
In the course of the events described in the notebooks, Haller comes across a strange tract called “On Steppenwolf”, which forms another section of the novel. This is a cold, abstract treatment of his character, in which a lot of the claims he has made are ruthlessly taken apart. In particular, the central fact of Haller’s identity—that he feels torn between his human side and his wolfish nature—is revealed to be a “simple, brutal, primitive formula.” In fact, the tract claims, Harry Haller is made up of innumerable different selves, not a mere two. His binary concept of a human spirit struggling with a wolfish, animalistic body is a gross simplification that has caused much of his anguish.
After that, we’re back to the notebooks, which form the bulk of the book. Haller is on the verge of suicide when he meets Hermione, a young woman who reminds him of his childhood friend Hermann Hesse. With her help, he explores totally different sides of his personality: sex, jazz, dancing the foxtrot, taking drugs, and finally entering the “Magic Theatre”, a place where he can explore all the different sides of his personality in full.
Steppenwolf is a novel of self-discovery and exploration, probably another source of its counterculture appeal. Harry Haller’s journey is essentially a destruction of the self he has always been attached to, in the process hoping to find something more authentic. The human/wolf dualism, like the spirit/body dualism at the heart of much of Western philosophy, must be abandoned in favour of an embrace of the complexity of the human condition, the multiple selves that comprise Harry Haller.
One flaw, for me, was the tone, which didn’t match the different narrators. The first section was supposed to be written by a conventional, bourgeois young man, the notebooks were supposed to be the ravings of a madman, and the tract was supposed to be an academic study of Steppenwolf. Yet, despite starting out in those different voices, they all coalesced in the end into the same voice, a voice that sounded remarkably like that of a highly intelligent Nobel Prize-winning author with a lot of great ideas to put across.
But that’s a minor quibble. Overall, I found this to be a fascinating novel with an interesting structure and plenty of ideas to chew on about the nature of human existence within modern society. I’d recommend it if you’re looking for something a bit different from anything you’ve read before.