The works of Hermann Hesse have been an inspiration and a comfort to me in recent times, and they never fail to engender a sense of well-being and equilibrium. Feeling the need for those restorative qualities once again, I recently read his novel Knulp, originally published in 1915.
The novel is divided into three "tales", Early Spring, My Recollections of Knulp and The End. It touches on familiar territory for Hesse;namely themes of self-discovery and "closure". The character Knulp is a wanderer, who straight society would regard as "rootless", and who delights in his carefree existence, but is still somehow subject to occasional restlessness and soul-searching. The latter manifest themselves in the final chapters, as Knulp is afflicted by a serious illness, and wonders whether his life has had a purpose, after an old friend queries whether he has utilized his talents for the best.
The first tale Early Spring serves partly as exposition, detailing some of Knulp's traits and attitudes The second part My Recollections of Knulp is told from the perspective of a travelling companion of Knulp, and it is here perhaps that the first signs of ambiguity appear in our hero's mind, though it is not shown overtly in the narrative. The final portion, The End, is where Knulp goes home, both literally and metaphorically, returning to his home town, ostensibly for medical treatment, but also to ruminate on his childhood, and there he finds his "answer".
I found myself identifying more and more with the central character of the novel. He had embarked on a course, but was now assailed by self-doubt, uncertainty and even stagnation, wondering indeed whether he was indeed fulfilled, or possessed by self-delusion.
As with many Hesse books, there are some wonderfully moving little scenes, the one which touched me most here was the one where Knulp and the servant girl Barbele bade each other farewell after a night out.
There is some examination of the conflict and tension between, on the one hand, curiosity and inquisitiveness, and on the other, comfort and familiarity. This soon gave way to the question of what actually constitutes "roots" and "home" Is it a physical place, or a state of mind?
The regular Hesse concern of a "homecoming" as a metaphor for closure as death approaches is deployed here too. The closing passages centre on Knulp's encounter with "God", although it is tempting to see God in this context as a metaphor for the world at large and the character's friends and relatives. Concerned that his life since childhood has been worthless, Knulp receives assurance that his life has been of value, that although he has not been of "value" to others in a conventional "bourgeois" way, he has served a purpose by his cheeriness and warmth to others, and the way in which his demeanour and sheer presence precipitated thoughts in others. The memorable phrase "homesickness for freedom" is employed to describe the sentiments which Knulp might have instilled in people who have lived a more staid existence. Again, the equating of childhood with freedom and non-conformism is noticeable.
Knulp is another striking and thought-provoking work, subtly different from other similar Hesse works, mostly by virtue of its structure. Most of all, like many other entries in the author's bibliography, it has the capacity to make one feel glad to be alive, and to shake one out of any apathy and inertia which might linger.