Book Review for “Demian” by Hermann Hess.
Summary: “In ‘Demian’, Hermann Hesse dramatizes the dilemma of the marked man, the outcast, the quasi-criminal hero who rejects society and strives to find a higher meaning in a strange world of his own making.” This edition is translated by Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck, which also includes an introduction written in 1947 by Thomas Mann.
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary; Germany (various places); Other Categories: Novella, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Vintage, Translation.
As you can see from the title of this post, this was the book that was picked for me in the most recent Classics Club Spin. You should know that I’ve had this copy on my shelves for a very long time – possibly over 30 years, if not more. I’m guessing I bought it because I remembered having loved Hess’ “Siddhartha” when I was in High School. However, I also attempted to read his “Magister Ludi” (aka The Glass Bead Game), but failed miserably. I’m also guessing that because I struggled and then gave up half way through that book, that it put me off Hess, and that’s why I didn’t pick up this novella. Well, more fool me, then!
Interestingly enough, reading this brought back memories of reading “Siddhartha” much more than I thought it would. I recall thinking that in “Siddhartha” Hess had a way of building tension and anxiety among the characters, almost to the extreme. Our protagonist and narrator here, Sinclair, struggles with his self throughout this book, starting with a lie he tells to a bully, which escalates until the titular character of this novel, Demian, comes to his rescue. Despite the quick conclusion to the bullying, this becomes a turning point in Sinclair’s life. This follows him – or rather, he follows this – throughout the novel. While Hess proves that he can delve deeply into the psyche of a young man, and express that on the page, frankly, I found some of it to be a bit over the top. I mean, there’s just so much internal torment you can wade through before you start to get frustrated by the lack of any peace for your protagonist. It therefore made perfect sense that many have compared this novel to the biblical story of Job.
However, whereas the biblical Job is being tested by God and Satan, it seems to me that Sinclair is putting himself through these tests, and hangs onto the memories of his friendship with Demian to keep him from giving up all hope – almost as if Demian is a god himself. I should also note that I noticed the homosexual (or rather, bisexual) undertones in this novel that others have noted, which I’m sure I might have missed if I had read it when I was younger. For the easily offended, let me just say that you can rest assured that these were fairly subtle, and even when Sinclair has sex with a woman, there are no graphic details of the events.
The thing is, as deeply as Hess delves into Sinclair’s internal tussles, there’s something distant in the narrative that keeps us from truly feeling what his protagonist is going through. This could be because of how many varying stages Hess has Sinclair go through in his personal development, and it was a bit difficult to keep track of each change in him. Furthermore, Hess has quite a bit to say about how he sees the deterioration of the world and society, which was obviously tinted by this having been written not long after the end of the Great War, but before the rise of Nazi Germany. I assume that his opinions about the direction his homeland had taken was what caused him to move to Switzerland, as he would not have been popular with the political leaders who rose to power several years later.
All told, I’m really glad I read this novella, since it reminded me of my first experience with Hess’ writing so many years ago, and I get why Hess won a Nobel Prize for Literature. Did I love this book? No, I can’t say I did. It wasn’t an easy read, but it is a short one, and also an important one. However, I did find it very compelling, especially when I got to the last 20-30 pages. To be honest, I had a very hard time putting it down, because I really needed to know if Sinclair would find some peace after all his sufferings. For all this, I can recommend this book, and for me, I think it deserves four out of five stars.
This book was first published in 1919 and is still available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and The Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.