Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: German Literature Month 2020

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.

November has been a busy month for me, but I am determined to slip in a quick review for German Literature Month, hosted once again by book bloggers Caroline and Lizzy.

German Literature Month X

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.

Steppenwolf cover

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.

You can find some of my previous posts for German Literature Month on the blog. Or read other people’s reviews here.

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There are 4 comments

  1. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you for posting this review.
    Lately, once a week, I’ve been blogging what I call Reviews from the Archive… my (usually naïve) thoughts from the reading journals I’ve been keeping since 1997. To say that this was embarrassing when it came to sharing the one about Steppenwolf is an understatement. (I hope to do better with this week’s review of The Tree of Man.)
    I concluded my post with the fervent wish that someone else who had reviewed the book properly would come to my rescue… and you have so I have linked to yours from mine.
    All the best to you in the UK, stay safe and well,
    Lisa Hill, Melbourne (where we defeated the second wave and are now enjoying the gradual easing of one of the toughest lockdowns in the world).

    1. Hi Lisa, Thanks so much for your kind comments about my review. I’m glad it helped to supplement what you wrote, and thanks for the link. I have to say, I do admire your honesty in posting an old review you weren’t very proud of, and your open-mindedness in looking for other opinions about a book that didn’t work for you. I also think it’s great that you have reading journals going back to 1997! I’d love to be able to go back and see what I was reading back then and what I thought about it.

      Glad things are looking up in Melbourne! I know how tough your lockdown was—I do some freelance editing work for a tech company over there called Envato, and the people I work with have told me how strict it’s been. It seemed to be very effective in limiting transmission and minimising the deaths, though.

      Although I am from the UK, I’ve spent this year in Serbia, where the government imposed a super-strict lockdown that successfully kept a lid on the first wave earlier this year, but have now let the second wave get out of control. I think they were afraid of the economic fallout if they shut down again, which I do understand, but things are really bad now. They’re now starting to close things down anyway, but it’s too late when the numbers are climbing so fast. Still, at least there are vaccines on the way!

  2. He’s not an author I’ve ever really seriously considered reading before, but this sounds quite intriguing beginning with the Editor’s Note that’s not an Editor’s Note. It’s good that the sameness in the narrative voice doesn’t detract from the multiple personalities too much. Every year I think maybe I’ll get to German Literature Month, but then, I don’t. Partly because I’m always conscious of other reading projects as-yet-unfinished with the end of the year approaching and partly because I’m a little afraid of just how much I would add to my TBR if I peered any more closely!

    Your situation in Serbia sounds like the situation in this part of Canada as well; the second-wave philosophy in this province (and several others) has been hampered by economy-first and people-second measures. And it’s too late to move in with Lisa in Melbourne!

    1. It’s an interesting one! Maybe next year… I’m also wary of blogging events—I have a hard enough time keeping up with blogging and reviewing as it is, and I often get side-tracked by work or other things and unable to post for a while. So I try not to commit to much, but I like getting involved in German Literature Month most years, and checking in on what others have written.

      Oh, I’m sorry to hear that about Canada—I remember you handled the first wave pretty well. But so many countries have gone down this path. It almost feels as if there was some meeting of world leaders some time in the summer where they all agreed not to do another lockdown. Luckily for Lisa, I guess the Australian PM didn’t turn up 😉

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