What a strange book was Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. My impetus to read it was learning that Clarice Lispector was very influenced by it especially when writing her first book Near to the Wild Heart. I wanted to read the Hesse before the Lispector so I could catch glimpses of its influence. So I should get to Lispector soon, but first, Steppenwolf.
I know a number of people who read this in high school and college and were blown away by it. As I began reading it I was nothing but annoyed by the character of Harry Haller but I could see why he might be appealing for teens and young twenty-somethings: feelings of being exceptional, of not belonging, of the world being meaningless and pointless, of the conflict between individual and society, of wanting to fit in but being appalled at the idea of fitting in, of the wild-self versus the civilized-self (the human versus the wolf). Such an existential crisis is so romantic when a person is young and without perspective. But when you are in your forties watching Harry who is fifty (or close to), all I could think about was how much I wanted to punch him in the nose and yell at him to stop his whining and get over himself. You’re so unhappy with the way the world is? Then stop hiding in your room and do something about it.
All of Harry’s troubles are brought on by himself and his decision to withdraw and pretty much spend his time hiding out in a dim pub and his room. But he is rescued from his suffering and reluctant fading into to suicide by Hermine, a woman he meets at a bar. Her name isn’t really Hermine, Harry names her thus because he reminds him of his dear friend Hermann (hmm, I wonder if that is a little meta there?). She seems to know everything he is thinking and feeling, and promises to teach him how to live (you can’t kill yourself until you have actually lived and you haven’t lived until you learn how to dance). She also promises to make him fall in love with her and when that happens he has to do something for her and he is not allowed to refuse. When Harry is in love with her, he has to kill her, for she too is suffering and longing for release from this world.
Hermine is a courtesan and not always available to Harry. She also never talks about herself, their interactions are all pretty much about Harry all the time. This strikes me as a male fantasy – pretty woman only interested in you who never wants to talk about her problems but only have a good time. And then, even better, Hermine procures a mistress for Harry and is never jealous, actually wants to hear all about their lovemaking. And then Hermine brings Pablo, a saxophonist onto the scene.
Pablo seems to be so free and easy, he laughs at everything and Harry thinks he must be a stupid man. Pablo will mix you up any kind of drug cocktail you’d like and keeps telling Harry that he is too serious and needs to learn how to laugh. But Pablo is really a sort of Puck figure who knows exactly what he is about. After a masquerade during which Harry falls in love with Hermine when he discovers her in the crowd dressed as Hermann, Pablo takes the pair to his Magic Theatre. There he drugs them up and tells them to pick a door, any door.
In the last portion of the book we are treated to a series of fantastical experiences as Harry moves through scenes created by different parts of his soul. He learns he is not just a man or a wolf but many things. The ending is rather disturbing when Harry kills a sleeping Hermine and has very little emotional reaction to it. But is she dead or just part of the whole drug-induced trip? We don’t know. And after it all, is Harry over his existential crisis? I think we are supposed to believe that he is, but I am not convinced. Pablo chides him for still not being able to laugh, especially at himself. And it seems to me that Harry’s inability to laugh is at the root of his difficulties all along, the reason he splits himself into wolf and man. Life is absurd, full of contradictions and people are absurd and contradictory too and Pablo seems to be trying to impart that. One has to accept the absurdities, laugh at them, know when to push back against them and when to give up and join in otherwise a person ends up alone in their room or a dark corner of a pub drinking too much.
I have no idea if my reading of the book is even close to what Hesse intended. There are apparently many autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements throughout and he wrote it after a profound spiritual crisis of his own in the 1920s. The book was first published in Germany in 1927 and translated and published in English in 1929. It was a great success. Hesse later asserted that people largely misunderstood the book. I can understand why. It seems to be one of those books that, like Hermine for Harry, acts as a sort of mirror in which it is easy to see the things you want to see and disregard the rest.