Author One: Hermann Hesse

I was going to organize the list in some logical manner, such as alphabetized by author, but that would quickly land me in Austenland, and I’m not quite ready to get bogged down there. Then I realized, hey, it’s Banned Books Week! What better way to start than with a banned book? There are two books on the list that have been banned, at least that I’m aware of. One is, of course, Ulysses, but if I start with that, I’m sunk before I’ve even begun. The other is Call of the Wild, but I’ve read that in the past couple of years, so I’d like to leave that for a while. (According to Banned Books Awareness, it was banned by fascist governments for being too radical, and also because Jack London was a notorious socialist. It’s also been banned by sensitive parents who thought it was a children’s book because it was told from a dog’s point of view. Ugh, the stupidity.)

Luckily (for me alone), a Texas school board chose this week to ban, among others, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Apparently they missed the point of Banned Books Week.

The books were banned from classrooms because parents complained about, mostly, sex, as well as some other ridiculous things, and the school board acquiesced. Siddhartha was banned because of premarital sex and also it depiction of Buddhist philosophy. Not sure what specifically about its depiction is offensive — that it’s inaccurate or offensive, or just that it’s there? — but I hope to discover that soon.

Siddhartha has always been a mystery to me. I’ve seen it on such lists, and I’ve seen it being read by earnest young people on the subway or my Goodreads timeline, but I know nothing about it or its author. Making Hesse the perfect author to start with.

Briefly, this is what I’ve learned: Hesse won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946 for an impressive body of work that was really only big in Germany. But Siddhartha is about a man’s quest for enlightenment in ancient India during the time of Buddha, so the book naturally found an audience in North America during the sixties. Hesse wrote loads more books, some of them novellas, fairy tales, poems, and short-story collections, but the only other one I’ve heard of is Steppenwolf — also because it was big in the sixties.

If I were to start chronologically— well, I’d have to know German. In English I can start with edited short story collections. Stories of Five Decades is sweeping, as the title suggests; the first stories were written in 1899 (Siddhartha was written in 1922). It was edited by Theodore Ziolkowski, a professor of German language and literature, who has had his hand in many Hesse collections, and most stories were translated by Ralph Manheim. Interesting factoid: Manheim’s illustrious career included the translation from German of The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. The guy who washes the dishes in our house loves the 1984 movie adaptation (and really anything from 1984, a very prodigious pop culture year), but every time he suggests we watch it, I groan about how I don’t have that kind of time.

Ziolkowski also provides the introduction to Stories of Five Decades, which helped me fill in a couple of blanks. Hesse didn’t think much of his early work, thought it was too self-reflective, so I was interested in looking for the shift. He also realized that he didn’t think much of storytelling, or didn’t think it was terribly relevant for an increasingly globalized readership, and decided to find a new style in the late teens of the twentieth century. His change of heart was influenced a lot by Jung and Nietzsche, and rather than reflect circumstances and situations that were relevant to very few, his writing turned even further inward, to examining his own consciousness and experience for universal truths. So, the shift to his signature style of “mythic generalization,” as Ziolkowski refers to it, should be pretty apparent. I’ll let you know if I’m alert enough to catch it.


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