Thursday, 19 December 2013

Gertrude - Hermann Hesse

I was unsure what to expect when I read the Hermann Hesse novel "Gertrude". It does embrace many of the characteristic features and concerns of Hesse's novels, but takes them in some interesting directions. I also felt that the book read very agreeably as a conventional "story", quite apart from the philosophical ground which it covers. Some familiar Hesse ideas and themes are contained in a looser framework than is present in many of his other novels.

The narrator of the story is Kuhn, a composer and musician. He details some of the crucial staging posts in his adult life, and his career as a musician.  The two most important characters other than Kuhn are the singer Muoth and his future wife Gertrude. The relationship between Muoth and Gertrude, which is the source of some anguish and dismay for Kuhn, is the inspiration for his masterwork, an opera, and forms the main thrust of the later chapters of the book.

"Gertrude" contains much ruminating on issues of ageing, loneliness, love and spirituality, but for me the underlying threads which ran through it were what expectations we should have of life, whether we are unrealistic in presuming that happiness and contentment will be predominant, to what extent it is wise to intervene in events, and the importance of the interdependence of people.  These things are explored via Kuhn's own travails, and those of his friends and relatives, and are rationalized partly through Hesse's established lens.

The role of music, so prevalent in much of Hesse's literature, is very much to the fore in this novel. As well as giving the story an added lyricism, charm and flexibility, it is employed by the author as a universal medium, which explains many things much more eloquently than any words ever could, capturing the essence of what it is to be human, the harmony of life, and permeating the core of the soul.

Many of Hermann Hesse's works concentrate on matters of self-discovery, spiritual journey and renewal. These are touched on generally throughout "Gertrude", but the most attention is given to the concepts of one-ness, the merging of opposing elements, such as misery and happiness, melancholy and joy, and contentment and restlessness.

I first began to properly explored Hesse's work two or three years ago, and it has been both inspirational and moving. However, more than any other of his novels which I have read, I personally identified closely with one of the characters, in this case Kuhn. His constant agonizing about the merits, and consequences, of isolation and solitude, and the benefits of mixing with other people, really chimed with some of the thought processes which have been a feature of my recent existence. Is the full richness of life, as it was always intended to be, only experienced by embracing the whole gamut of emotions, moods and predicaments which it has to offer?  To cut oneself off from things which may be disagreeable or painful leads to wishful thinking, hollowness and emptiness.

Within the story there are supposed turning points, including the toboggan accident in which Kuhn sustains life-influencing injuries, and also the death of his father.  My reading of the ensuing situation was that rather than prompting Kuhn to massively change his behaviour as such, these episodes simply concentrated his mind on the true nature of life itself, and how far our behaviour can serve to transcend fate and destiny.  The incidents in question may have altered Kuhn's immediate plans, and on one occasion even saved his life, but they also affected his view on the world.

The symbolism of the tension between, and blending of, the personalities and outlooks of Muoth and Gertrude is in keeping with these concepts, but somehow feels separate and outlined with some finesse. It is quite subtly implied in the narrative that the relationship between the two formed the inspiration for Kuhn's opera, and the dynamic between the abrasive and unpredictable Muoth and the more temperate and placid Gertrude is not satisfactorily resolved. There is no happy ending.

"Gertrude" is a charming and poignant story, and does not just feel like a vehicle, or a series of hooks, on which can be suspended various ramblings about profound philosophical and moral questions. The settings and imagery seemed less abstract than in some other Hesse novels, with place names more prominent, and in this sense it is comparatively conventional and, I would suggest, a good starting point for people wishing to immerse themselves in this author's books.

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