Although hardly as recognized as the NARZISS AND GOLDMUND or the Novel prize winner THE GLASS BEAD GAME, GERTRUDE is one of Hermann Hesse's most beautifully written works that deserves distinction in its own right. The novel seems a rather short read at first glance, but its fast-moving nine chapters are much denser than its small volume. To fit this novel into one category would be difficult: it is a tragedy of two lovers and two friends; it is a tale of unrequited love; it is a reminiscence of a man who has matured from an indeterminate youth into adulthood; it is a testimony of the destructivity of egotism of man. This is a story of every significant aspect of a human being, that witnesses life's joys and sorrows in the most unfeigned, scrupulous way.
In a retrospective manner, the story unfolds chronologically by the main character, Kuhn. The story starts as Kuhn recollects the adolescence and early adulthood of his life in a calm, bleak tone. Kuhn is a shy, remarkably observant youth, whose life has been "tuned to one-key note and directed solely to one star": music. Despite his passion, however, his future as a musician is only in vain.
While Kuhn fritters away in depression and self-disillusionment, one day, a life-changing accident happens: one that changes the scale of life on which he lives, and it grants him the concentration and productive insight to express himself through writing his own music. It is a contradictory and rather ironic event, for it deprives him the joy of youth and yet this loss of youthful happiness becomes a path that leads him to become a productive artist. Life's sorrows and anguish transform into his main source of inspiration. One of the songs composed during that period leads him to the encounter with Muoth, the opera singer with an impetuous personality. Their relationship continually grows and deteriorates, as the story becomes increasingly complex with new characters introduced in almost every chapter.
The philosophical depth and insight into life and human nature are the trademarks of Hesse, and they do not fail to form the centrepiece of this novel either. The story is really an emotional analysis of the impact of Muoth's impulsive and agonized personality on people around him, how Muoth's egotism and ill-guided passion affect them, eventually resulting in shattering their lives. A remark casually made by Kuhn's father strikingly coincides with Muoth's character: "Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they only have themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full, but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, immediately put an end to their lives."
While the flowery prose often runs over several lines in one sentence, the sensitive writing of Hesse affords to remain clear and elegant. Kuhn's describing the impact of music on himself is one such example: "Oh, music! A melody occurs to you; you sing it silently, inwardly only; you steep your being in it; it takes possession of all your strength and emotions, and during the time it lives in you, it effaces all that is fortuitous, evil, coarse and sad in you; it brings the world into harmony with you, it makes burdens light and gives wings to the benumbed!...For each pleasing harmony of clearly combined notes...charms and delights the spirit, and the feeling in intensified with each additional note; it can at times fill the heart with joy and make it tremble with bliss as no other sensual pleasure can do."
Besides the admirably detailed descriptions of the characters and striking accounts of emotions, Hesse often exploits similes and metaphors to make the story even more vivid and beautiful; especially when talking about the relationship between Kuhn and Gertrude. As Gertrude comes up to Kuhn "as lightly as a bird and as naturally as a friend", Kuhn is drawn to Gertrude "as an early morning wanderer surrenders himself to the blue sky and the bright dew on the meadows", while the realization of his love for her is described as "the radiance and peace emerged through the raging storm of sound, revealing the light from behind the heavy clouds."
Going through a series of fateful changes in his relationships with Muoth, Gertrude, his parents, and many other characters around himself, Kuhn experiences the joy and pain of life. Kuhn learns to plunge into "the swift creative current" in which he emerges to "the free heights of feeling, where pain and bliss are no longer separate from each other."
Although the rather abrupt ending gives a feeling of insufficient resolution, the novel keeps its magnetic power to the end, leaving the reader questioning the very meaning of love and life itself. GERTRUDE, with its depth of insight and its beauty of the language, is a truly remarkable piece of literature to be enjoyed by many.
Whew, that was long... CONCLUSION: Put on some Schumann and kick back on the couch with this book..it'll take your night away!