This is my first contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.
This is one of those classic books that is very difficult to review and do it justice because there are so many ideas contained within the book. It is a coming-of-age story, a commentary on existential philosophy and a beautiful description of a life long friendship. Narcissus is a teacher’s assistant in the cloister of Mariabronn and fully intends to take his vows as a monk. Narcissus is a very talented scholar and it is evident that he will one day serve the church and even become the Abbot of the cloister. He is a cerebral man who values the intellect but his emphasis on the rational also prevents him from having any real friendships or meaningful love in his life. But this all changes when a young boy by the name of Goldmund is dropped off at the cloister by his father.
Goldmund has been raised solely by his father and his father has done everything in his power to erase Goldmund’s memories of his gypsy mother. Goldmund’s father drops him off at the cloister with the intention of Goldmund being a pupil and eventually taking a vow to become a monk. Goldmund’s father tells him that he must dedicate his life to God in order to make up for his mother’s sins. But Goldmund does not possess the intellectual detachment of Narcissus and love and art and seduction are things which he cannot deny himself in order to become a monk. Narcissus helps Goldmund realize that cloister life is not for him and when Goldmund learns the pleasures of sex from a gypsy woman he knows that Narcissus is right and he immediately flees the cloister.
Most of the book is a description of Goldmund’s restless journey as a wanderer. Wherever he stays, whether it be in a modest farmhouse, the castle of a knight or a large city, he manages to satisfy his sexual desires by seducing countless women. Goldmund is kind and loving and handsome so oftentimes a single look or a caress is enough for a woman to fall in bed with him. But he never stays in one place long enough to have a lasting and deep friendship like the one he had with Narcissus. The longest he stays at any place is the Bishop’s city where he becomes an apprentice to a master artist named Niklaus. Niklaus teaches Goldmund the finer points of sculpting and Goldmund’s greatest masterpiece is a sculpture of St. John that is done in the likeness of his greatest friend Narcissus. Even though Narcissus and Goldmund are very far apart for many years, their friendship still has a great influence on Goldmund’s life.
Narcissus does come back into Goldmund’s life at a critical point in the book when Goldmund is most in need of help. Goldmund eventually goes back to live in the cloister as the artist in residence and he works on many sculptures with which to grace the beloved halls of his boyhood home. Goldmund has had many hardships while on his travels and he puts all of his experiences into his artwork. There is a heavy emphasis in the book on the close relationship between ecstasy and suffering. When we give our heart to someone, whether it be a friend, a lover or a relative, we always run the risk of being harmed. Goldmund had a deep fondness with his mother whom he barely remembers and throughout the book he is looking for that mother-relationship again that made him feel so safe during his very early years. His culminating sculpture at the monastery, one that he wants to keep to himself and not share, is a mother figure done in the likeness of one of his most influential lovers named Lydia.
Narcissus and Goldmund is a classic novel that I will reach for again and again on my bookshelf. It is a novel with so many layers that I a sure that each time I reread it I will have new insights and thoughts about this plot. I look forward to reading another Hesse novel for German Literature month. What German Literature have you read that you would highly recommend?
About The Author:
Hermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) which explore an individual’s search for spirituality outside society.
In his time, Hesse was a popular and influential author in the German-speaking world; worldwide fame only came later. Hesse’s first great novel, “Peter Camenzind”, was received enthusiastically by young Germans desiring a different and more “natural” way of life at the time of great economic and technological progress in the country.
Throughout Germany, many schools are named after him. In 1964, the Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis was founded, which is awarded every two years, alternately to a German-language literary journal or to the translator of Hesse’s work to a foreign language. There is also a Hermann Hesse prize associated with the city of Karlsruhe,Germany.