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One of my favourite writers but this one didn't work for me
on 16 March 2015
If you don't know Hesse's work, please look at the last two paragraphs of this review. His writing is unusual and, regardless of whether you agree with my view of this particular book, it is worth knowing what to expect.
You could call me a fan of Hesse. I read The Prodigy, Journey to the East and Siddhartha as a young adult and put them high up my list of favourite books. I recently read his fairy tales and found them delightful. But I didn't enjoy Narcissus and Goldmund. I won't say the glowing reviews are mistaken - but, although Narcissus and Goldmund is clever and well written, I found its message uninspiring and tediously laboured. I only finished it out of sense of loyalty.
Hesse's early novel, The Prodigy, is grounded in reality. The later Journey to the East and Siddhartha are elevated right out of reality into allegory and spirituality. It felt to me that Narcissus and Goldmund sits uncomfortably in between. It describes many events with realistic detail but it also makes enormous assumptions that are obviously not intended to be remotely realistic. I have no problem with that in principle but the mix of realism and unrealism didn't work for me and I found it impossible to empathise with Goldmund as I had, for example, with Siddhartha and the eponymous Prodigy.
For those who don't know Hesse, please be aware that the book contains many sections devoid of dialogue or narrative events. It often feels like a summary or essay and even when there is a narrative thread it is more reflective than vivid, as though Hesse found them an interruption before returning to the real business of describing states of mind. He deals largely with spiritual themes, particularly the search for meaning in life, rejection of conventional material life and, in this novel, the fragility of life.
If you are interested in Hesse you may like The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham, which approaches similar themes in a modern setting and a more prosaic style.