Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Magister Ludi, by Hermann Hesse

Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game
Hermann Hesse
(Richard & Clara Winston, translators)
Mass Market Paperback, 520 pages
Bantam, October, 1970
(Originally published as Das Glasperlenspiel,
1943, by Fretz & Warmuth Verlag AG,
Zurich, Switzerland)
Classics, Literary Fiction,
Philosophy, Science Fantasy, Utopian Literature

AWARDS: Nobel Prize in Literature, 1946

My Review

The great, German-born writer, Hermann Hesse, had a very profound impact on me during my college years. I am now trying to re-read the books that so fascinated me back then, although I don't expect I'll ever really be able to plumb their depths.  Hesse was much influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, so his novels are full of symbolism and the hidden workings of the human psyche.  They also portray the workings of the archetypes -- those universal denizens of Jung's collective unconscious, which is shared by the entire human race.  Adding to this is Hesse's luminous, lyrical prose, which extends itself into long, descriptive passages of great literary beauty.

In other words, this is not an easy read.  It is, however, a rewarding one, if one is willing to invest the time necessary to savor the book, since it obviously does not lend itself to fast reading.  This is by no means the type of book that one "can't put down".  In fact, one must indeed put it down, and often, so as to ponder the things Hesse is saying.  Then one is inevitably drawn back to it.  At least, this is what happened with me. 

I would call this a rather unique hybrid of novel and philosophical treatise.  In that respect, it reminds me of the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, a book that, among others, was very influential in the development of the American counter-culture several years ago, and which I also intend to re-read.   Another book that comes to mind is Sophie's World: A Novel About The History Of Philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder, which I have yet to read.

These are books that use the format of a novel to present philosophical ideas.  Therefore, the plot, if any, is driven by such ideas.  Obviously, this is not the typical novel that contains the basic elements of fiction writing as we have come to expect them.   There's no heart-pounding suspense, no fast action, little to no character conflict.  At the risk of sounding repetitious, I must again state that we are instead presented with a banquet of intellectual concepts to be pondered and enjoyed for the sheer enjoyment of doing so.   So this is literary pleasure of quite a different order. 

Through the fictional character named Joseph Knecht (whose last name in German means "servant"), Hesse presents the theme that dominates all of his books -- the intellectual life as contrasted with the active life.  Knecht undergoes an evolution in this novel, coming to the point of accepting that the intellectual life alone cannot satisfy completely, if entirely divorced from life in the sensory world.   In the process, the reader is given an intimate look into Knecht's -- and therefore, Hesse's -- inner world.  

The novel's predominant metaphor is the Glass Bead Game, invented by Hesse.  He never provides a clear picture of it, however, although he does say that, in its beginnings, the game was, indeed, played with glass beads.  Eventually, it evolved into a complex interrelationship of ideas, taken from certain fields of human knowledge, such as music, mathematics, languages, and science.   The purpose of each game is to find ways to link core concepts in these fields into one grand, symphonic whole.

There are at least two important sources of conflict in the novel, although said conflict is on a strictly intellectual level.  It's not of the action-oriented variety.  Instead, it's a clash of ideologies.  Knecht has two opponents here -- Plinio Designori, a guest student in the fictional province of Castalia, where the Glass Bead Game was developed, and Father Jacobus, a member of the Benedictine Order, whom Knecht meets when he is assigned to tutor monks in the basics of the Game.   Designori, who eventually returns to the outside world, represents the active life; he later becomes involved in politics.  Jacobus, on the other hand, represents the life of the spirit.  He is concerned about the fact that Castalia has no religion or belief in a Supreme Power.  Both of these men have a great influence on Knecht, who will eventually make the decision to fully integrate his intellectual life with that of the senses, of action.  This is despite the fact that he had been chosen to be the Magister Ludi -- the Master of the Glass Bead Game, at the age of 40.  As Magister Ludi, one of his duties includes leading the annual celebration of the game, an occasion of great ceremony in Castalia, attended by heads of state and other influential people in Hesse's futuristic world.

The novel also includes several poems "written" by Knecht in his student years, as well as three fictional lives he was required to complete as part of his studies.  These further demonstrate Hesse's power as a lyrical writer.  I only wish I knew German, so I could read this book in the original, thus getting the true "feel" of the work!

The perfect culmination to Hesse's literary work, this novel will repay the reader with some very interesting, profound concepts that will indelibly imprint themselves in his/her mind.  I would especially recommend it for those times when one does crave something to really engage the intellect.  Not that there's anything wrong with reading less challenging works, however.  It all depends on what the mind and the emotions are open to at any given point in time.  At least, this has been my experience, although I'm sure I'm not unique in this respect.

About The Author

(From Goodreads)

Hermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) which explore an individual's search for spirituality outside society.

In his time, Hesse was a popular and influential author in the German-speaking world; worldwide fame only came later. Hesse's first great novel, Peter Camenzind, was received enthusiastically by young Germans desiring a different and more "natural" way of life at the time of great economic and technological progress in the country.

Throughout Germany, many schools are named after him. In 1964, the Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis was founded, which is awarded every two years, alternately to a German-language literary journal or to the translator of Hesse's work to a foreign language. There is also a Hermann Hesse prize associated with the city of Karlsruhe,Germany.

Online Links


Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary Maria.

This is also one of my favorites. I should reread this soon.

Even as philosophical novels go, I recall the structure of this work being very unusual.

In addition the idea of The Glass Bead Game itself seems to be a unique and brilliant plot device. If it makes any sense, n a way I find that my lifetime reading experience is in a way, an attempt to play my own Glass Bead Game.

I agree with you in that I also wish I knew german so I could read Hesse in his original tongue. With an author like Hesse especially, I always fear that I am missing nuance in translation.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks so much for the compliment!! :)

I'm glad this is one of your favorites, as well. It is indeed a towering work of the intellectual imagination! It really captured my interest the first time I read it. The second time was actually a few years ago (I first posted this review at A NIGHT'S DREAM OF BOOKS), but, of course, I've never forgotten the book. It's a literary and intellectual treasure, and I want to read it again!

This novel is indeed unusual. it defies classification, as it has elements from different categories or genres. it obviously takes place in some future time,too, although I noticed, from the very first reading, that there aren't many references to technology in it. Interesting, as well as paradoxical, I'd say. I'm sure The Glass Bead Game would lend itself extremely well to technological manipulations -- if only we knew exactly how it was played. As some critics have pointed out, Hesse only gave a very vague concept of the game in the novel. It was originally played with actual glass beads, but then it evolved to the point where these were no longer used. But then HOW was it played? Was it akin to chess? I suppose Hesse did not describe this game on purpose, so that each reader could somehow create their own idea of it, but heck, it's really very frustrating not to have a clear idea of how this game was played!

You know, some contemporary fans of this novel have even attempted to create a game based on The Glass Bead Game. Be sure to check out the links at the end of my review for more information.

The concept of The Glass Bead Game is indeed a BRILLIANT plot device!! I totally agree with this assessment!! It allows the reader to get to know Knecht intimately, as being a very bold and noble concept.

BTW, I LOVE this quote from your comment: " If it makes any sense, in a way I find that my lifetime reading experience is in a way, an attempt to play my own Glass Bead Game." This makes PERFECT sense! I think this is what any discerning reader does throughout their life -- attempt to correlate and interweave every book read into a coherent, philosophical/psychological/spiritual whole. This happens because, especially in the case of nonfiction, but with fiction, too, one book leads to certain questions being asked, so that book leads to another, and then that one to another, and so on..... As you read, you compare one book with another, and just tie certain things together. So your reading self emerges, but your core self emerges, as well. It's a GRAND adventure!!

It is indeed a drawback not to know German, so as to get the original flavor of this novel, as well as others written by Hesse. I'm fortunate to be fluent in Spanish, so that I can read novels by Spanish and Latin American authors, but I would LOVE to be able to read many other novels in many more languages, such as Italian and French. I would add German and Russian to the list of languages I'd love to study.

Thanks so much for the fascinating, thought-provoking comment!! :)