Thursday, 16 January 2014

Klingsor's Last Summer - Hermann Hesse

Continuing my quest to read as much Hermann Hesse as possible, I next tackled "Klingsor's Last Summer", a novella which was originally published in 1919.

The story is loosely that of the last months of Klingsor, an artist/painter who lives in Switzerland. Although the narrative does not explicitly "cover" Klingsor's death, it is "reported" in an introduction. The bulk of the text is dedicated to ruminations by the artist and his friends on subjects relating to death, fate and human existence generally.

Although "Klingsor's Last Summer" explores and encompasses familiar Hesse preoccupations, it also feels quite "surrealistic", in terms of the imagery which it evokes. At times, it was difficult to ascertain whether or not metaphor was being employed.

The Klingsor character is what we may describe as a hedonist, seemingly living live to the full, and for the moment, unconcerned by consequences, or the pressure to conform. This is in keeping with a theme common in Hesse's body of work, that is the tension between bourgeois comfort and the more freewheeling, bohemian life of the artist or creator.

My own feeling is that "Klingsor's Last Summer" is a little more chaotic and meandering than many other Hesse novels or novellas. This is partly because of the more exotic imagery and symbolism. Any central, overriding message, if indeed there is one, is difficult to discern for much of the way.

In their discussions, Klingsor and his friends debate and agonize over various matters relating to the role of the artist, and the purpose of life. They question whether people spend too much time striving to portray and depict life, rather than enjoying and savouring it for its own sake. That was my interpretation, anyway! Another old chestnut raises its head, in the form of musing on what constitutes useful and constructive employment of one's time on earth, and whether this is necessarily important.

To me, Klingsor celebrates the childlike, the frivolous, the joyful, the ephemeral. Does it matter how we obtain pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment, as long as we do?  Can one sublime moment of euphoria or exuberance compensate for the myriad mundane aspects of life?

As the book progresses, I detected a tension between traditional Western views and perceptions of life, death and Fate, and the teachings of Eastern philosophies on these subjects. Is human experience one whole, embracing both life and death, and should we fear this concept?

The attitudes held by Klingsor and some of his associates also appear to be reflective of the time during which this story was composed, that is the opening decades of the twentieth century, a period of war, upheaval and change. Pessimism and fatalism abounded.

In all honesty, I did not find this as immediately enjoyable and stimulating as much as other Hermann Hesse works, although this view was doubtless influenced by its distinctive character.  It is still intriguing, and in places thought-provoking.

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