The Glass Bead Game – Hermann Hesse (Vintage, 2000)
Firstly, apologies for the absence of blogs for the last two weeks. My job-hunt seems to consume all of the free time I don’t spend asleep, which has made reading a lot slower. Also, The Glass Bead Game is a book that felt like it took forever to read…
I first saw this book on the bargain table in Camden Lock Books, a place I have talked about several times before, the description on the back was interesting enough: the story of a disaffected academic seeking to escape the ivory towers and make a life outside of academia.
There were affinities there. For the a good chunk of the past three years, I have known what it is like to be immersed in academia yet long for a life outside. This sounded like a story (albeit quite a long one, it’s not a small book) that I could get behind.
About four-fifths of the book take the form of a faux-biography of a man named Joseph Knecht (a punny name, as it is German for servant). Knecht, showing musical and intellectual promise from a young age, is taken to study in a series of elite academic institutions in a kingdom called Castalia. Castalia exists in our world as we know it, with constant references to philosophical and musical cultural figures like Plato or Bach, and also mentions of Rome, England, and even the First World War at one point. However, this wider setting is almost incidental. This is possibly intentional, as the focus is on Knecht, but it’s also regrettable.
Why? Because Knecht is as dull as dishwater. You take a big risk in writing a faux biography if the main, and in a sense sole, character is not very interesting. Knecht is a man who has doubts, and they are significant, but largely seems to go through life being told how amazing he is. This can get incredibly tedious.
I got the sense that the Glass Bead Game was an attempt by Knecht to retreat from the militarisation and strife of interwar Europe (he fled Germany for Switzerland in protest at the First World War). There is certainly a bucolic central European feel about Castalia, with its little villages and gorgeous mountain vistas and the academics of Castalia are strongly pacifistic after the in-world horrors of World War One. In this respect Hesse seems to be doing a similar thing to another famous writer from the same area, Stefan Zweig, whose literary response to Nazism was to ignore it in his only novel, the excellent and taut dramedy of manners Beware of Pity.
The world of Castalia is certainly interesting, particularly to someone like myself with an academic background, but even to me it remained shrouded in mystery. Central to all Castalian life is the omnipresent but frustratingly elusive “Glass Bead Game”, a fine art into which all knowledge (though mainly, it seems, maths, music and philosophy) is synthesised. The Game attracts the brightest minds from throughout Castalia and Knecht, while initially suspicious of it as a frivolous pursuit, goes on to become its leader -the “Magister Ludi”.
The way Hesse talks about the Game is symptomatic of the wider problems of the work. At first it seems like an object of great promise, but what it actually is is never explicitly explained. When he does describe Knecht overseeing a game it seems more like a musical performance (that he is conducting) than a game in which the players are active agents. I kept waiting for the twist, waiting to find out that it really was just marbles, but it never came. Instead we, only ever get a sense of the reverence in which the game is held, and see the excruciating preparations through which players go in designing the game. I chose to imagine the game as a metaphor for meaningless academic pursuits, satisfying and intriguing to the academic but with little relevance to the outside world (indeed this is explicitly a recurring theme in the work of which the Game is the apotheosis).
Despite the relatively mundane plot, the thing that kept me going in this book was the beautiful writing, and the anticipation that something would happen (it didn’t really). I don’t have a problem with books which celebrate the ordinariness of life (I absolutely loved John Williams’ Stoner), but Joseph Knecht isn’t ordinary. His entire life is defined by how exceptional he is, but he still doesn’t do a lot with it. I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot.
Then it got more tedious. After 400+ pages of pseudo-story and philosophical discussion there are about 100 further pages which consist of the “collected writings” of Knecht. This starts off with poems, which I quite liked because I am a man of simple tastes and like poems that rhyme, and then ends with three “lives”. The “lives”, in the plot, are short stories which scholars were expected to write during the course of their postgraduate studies. These were interesting enough, with a series of pseudo-Knechts living out a range of different lives, but by this point they added nothing to the already-finished plot and I just wanted to start reading something else.
Perhaps The Glass Bead Game will be better the second time around, but to a busy reader like me it began to drag as it went on. There were definitely some interesting ideas, but they didn’t always hang together well as a story. Also, describe the damn Glass Bead Game to me Hermann… I give it three ∴∴∴ “therefore”s.