Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Many Kinds of Love: Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1873; trans. Rosamund Bartlett, 2014)

AnnaKIf there are as many heads as there are minds, then there must be as many kinds of love as there are hearts. — Anna Karenina

Near the end of Anna Karenina, in Book Seven, there’s an extraordinary passage that concerns the birth of Russian landowner Konstantin Levin’s first child. Tolstoy depicts how Levin experiences his wife being in labor with great power and precision, giving both visceral details and a sort of stream-of-consciousness unfolding of Levin’s inner state. It’s an amazing scene to encounter in a nineteenth century novel, and encapsulates what I think causes so many to find this one of the greatest of all novels: Tolstoy’s ability to embrace and meet the great questions of life head-on, exploring them from all sides and bringing them before us with vivid particularity.

But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t the book about Anna and her doomed affair with Count Vronsky? Who is this Levin person? Knowing only the bare plot summary that is surely familiar to anybody with any acquaintance with world literature, I was surprised to find that Anna herself takes up less than half of the book named after her. The thread concerning Levin — his love and marriage, his struggles with work and family, his spiritual transformation — has more weight and substance, and most significantly it ends in hope rather than despair. I also felt that we came much closer to Levin’s inner life. We never really know why Anna attaches herself so desperately to Vronsky, except that she must have a man to love, even if that love quickly turns into poisonous jealousy. While Levin’s every thought and decision is presented in great detail, we see Anna more often from the outside than the inside.

So why is the book not called Konstantin Levin? Or, as Tolstoy called it in an early draft, Two Marriages? I wondered about this all through my reading. Towards the end it becomes clear that Levin shares Anna’s inner quandary, her inability to live without understanding “what I am and why I am here.” But being a man, he is saved by his work, by his involvement in a world outside of the home. This sustains him until eventually he comes to a kind of epiphany that gives him the power to move into the future. Anna, on the other hand, has abandoned her child for a man whose love dissipates under the force of her need of him, leaving her with nothing. Some see her fate as a patriarchal punishment for that “unwomanly” act. But it can also be seen as representing what will come to us all if we turn away from the living, growing potential within us, and pursue illusory satisfaction elsewhere. This denial of our true self leads to a fragmentation and alienation that again feels startlingly modern in a family chronicle of the late nineteenth century.

Tolstoy lets us into Anna’s mind in her final, desperate, half-crazed moments, in which her loss of self becomes complete.

“Oh yes, is my hair brushed or not?” she asked herself. And she could not remember. She felt her head with her hand. “Yes, I did have my hair brushed, but I have no idea when.” She could not even trust her hand, and went up to the mirror on the wall to see whether her hair had really been brushed or not. She had brushed her hair, but she could not remember who had done it. “Who is that?” she thought, looking in the mirror at the swollen face with the strangely shining eyes which were looking fearfully at her. “Oh, it’s me,” she suddenly realized…

By naming his novel after Anna, perhaps Tolstoy meant to ask us to try to understand her plight, not to condemn and dismiss her as so many other characters do within the novel, but to consider that her story is our story too. We can all make errors and take wrong turnings in life that lead us to forget who we are. What causes one person to rise up against those circumstances, and another to fall? That’s one of the great mysteries that Tolstoy causes us to ponder in his great novel, in the way that fiction most fitly can: not through abstract arguments, but through pictures, through people who become real and living to us as we read.

Quite a few different English translations of Anna Karenina exist. I read the new version by Tolstoy biographer Rosamond Bartlett, which seemed to me a very fine and scrupulous rendering. Bartlett states that she tried to retain some of the seeming verbal awkwardnesses of the original, which have sometimes been smoothed out in other translations, but I found hers highly readable and not at all convoluted or ponderous. Her aim was “to produce a translation which is idiomatic as well as faithful to the original,” and as far as I can tell she has done well. The one exception was her frequent use of the word “jolly,” which sometimes sounds forced to me, but maybe that’s just my American ear. I would love to read another translation for comparison, if you have one to recommend.

Since reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? I’m ever more fascinated by the challenges and benefits of translation, and more appreciative of those who take on that important, difficult, exciting task. In an interesting article about some of the details of her translation, Rosamund Bartlett concludes, “Translators will keep ascending the towering peaks of world literature, just as there will continue to be assaults on Everest.” I’m grateful that they do, and that they can take us along with them.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Very Long Classic
Classics Club List #31


Words as Music: Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

MrsDVirginia Woolf is one of those authors I think I was simply too young to appreciate at first encounter. I was baffled by and uninterested in To the Lighthouse when made to read it in school, and so I avoided Woolf for decades. But trying to read and blog more about the classics has inspired me to look again at some of those authors I never gave a second chance, and Mrs. Dalloway went on my list.

When I started it, Woolf’s mannered language still baffled and annoyed me somewhat. I wondered: is it really necessary to write so flamboyantly about such trivial things as buying flowers for a party, pedestrians gawking on the pavement, old friends meeting? Though brief in page count, the novel’s dense and intricate structure makes it an exercise in concentration — it needs to be read slowly and sometimes repeatedly to understand what character or event is being talked about. This is no nineteenth-century narrative that leads one by the hand and presents neatly staged tableaux. It swoops and darts about in unexpected and disorienting ways.

So at first this annoyed me, and distanced me from the reading. But then suddenly something clicked and I found myself drawn in by Woolf’s playful and supple use of words to try to approach that ineffable thing, the human soul. In any ordinary cluster of city streets there are countless human beings suffering and loving and dying, with their memories and fears and hopes mostly completely uncomprehended by one another and often even themselves. How to articulate that? It can’t be with ordinary language, and Woolf turns to a prose that approaches poetry in her attempt to break through the ordinariness that hides our true selves.

I do like her writing best when it’s more pared down and less fanciful. There are times when one has to suspect her of showing off a bit, which is distracting. But then there are passages like this:

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! — that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant…

Or this:

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.

For such revelations, so musically expressed, I came to appreciate and even love Mrs. Dalloway. I’m so glad I gave Virginia Woolf another look, and know that I’ll be coming back for more.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Twentieth Century Classic
Classics Club List #16


A Play Well Spent: The Matchmaker

Thornton Wilder, The Matchmaker (1954)

Ruth Gordon, the original Dolly

A while ago I made a project of reading all of Thornton Wilder’s novels, but I didn’t include the multifaceted author’s renowned plays. While two of his famous trio of dramas — Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth — were drummed into me back in high school, I’d never seen or read The Matchmaker, until now.

It’s a play with quite a history, it turns out. I knew that it was the basis of the hit musical Hello Dolly! (which I also have never seen), but I hadn’t known that it was itself built on at least three other layers of dramatic history. Wilder based it on his own earlier flop The Merchant of Yonkers, which was based on the Austrian farce Einen Jux will er sich Machen, based in turn on John Oxenford’s Victorian one-act A Day Well Spent. To complicate things further, Tom Stoppard used the same story for his own play On the Razzle. And all of these draw on even deeper antecedents, the stock comic characters of the miserly old man, the thwarted young lovers, the buffoonish servants, which have lived on stage since ancient times.

History aside, what makes The Matchmaker retain its appeal for readers and audiences today? What is its particular draw? The factor that Wilder added to his originals, including his own earlier version, was the character of the matchmaker herself, Dolly Levi. To the silly, slapstick comedy of two country bumpkins out on the town in defiance of their employer, she brings an element of benign generosity, as she truly wants everyone to find joy in life: “I want New York to be more like Vienna and less like a collection of nervous and tired ants.” And if she herself has set her sights on the wealthy merchant Horace Vandergelder (who thinks she’s arranging a marriage for him with a younger woman), we can be sure that he’ll find himself the happier for it.

Dolly, too, has a source in ancient drama: the parasite,  someone who is always trying to wangle dinner invitations and other perks from the wealthy (para=next to, sitos=dinner). But Wilder has transformed this figure of ridicule into a spirit of life, who calls us to free ourselves from bonds of convention and habit. It’s a wonderful role for an actress who, like Dolly, has reached the age of wisdom.

In reading the play, I could enjoy its snappy dialogue, with lines like Dolly’s “Money, I’ve always felt, money — pardon my expression — is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.” I could also appreciate its masterly construction around familiar comic situations (including suitors hiding in closets, mislaid moneybags, and mistaken identities). But I longed to see it in performance, to put flesh on what otherwise remains a mere skeleton on the page. I would love to have seen Ruth Gordon as Dolly — her publicity photos make her look elfish and enchanting. Barring that, we do have a film version that was made in 1958 with one of the original cast (Robert Morse as Barnaby).

Shirley Booth in the film

Alas, while the film lifts scenes and dialogues verbatim from the play, it changes its emphasis and characterization to emphasize Dolly’s parasitism and make her less attractive. Whereas the play starts out with curmudgeonly Vandergelder and introduces Dolly, the transformative element, later, the film un-subtly adds an opening scene in which Dolly is trying on a wedding ring, announcing her intention to marry Vandergelder, and calling herself a matchmaker (which she never does in the play). The subplot about the young lovers is eliminated entirely, which also reduces her role as a facilitator of happiness and causes other scenes to be invented and changed around in an unconvincing way.

The way the characters speak in monologues to the audience, a carryover from the play, highlights the difference between live theater and film. In the theater, such a device when used well increases the human connection between the actors and the audience, embracing them all within a common space. In a film, it marks and emphasizes the artificiality of the screen, giving a slight sense of embarrassment.

It’s not a bad movie, but I didn’t feel it captured what was special about The Matchmaker. The magical circle created by live theater, when actors and audience are part of a unique creation in the moment, is simply not possible with film — and that’s exactly what Wilder was so sensitive to with his plays. I’ll still be hoping to see this one on stage some day.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Play
Classics Club List #23


Old Friends and New Fancies: An Old-Fashioned Girl

Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869-70)


An Old-Fashioned Girl is really two books. The first few chapters appeared as a serial in a magazine, and form an episodic narrative centered around a materially poor but morally upright girl who is on a visit to some wealthy friends. Polly, the “old-fashioned girl,” loves the Shaws but is baffled by how they can be so discontented and naughty when they have so much to be grateful for. Under her gentle influence, they begin to see the error of their ways.

The second, longer section is headed “Six Years Later” and (by popular demand, it seems) follows the young people as they grow up and make their way in the world. Polly, determined to support herself and help her family, is teaching music in Boston, a completely honorable undertaking which nevertheless in her day meant putting herself outside the bounds of polite society. Her friend Fanny, is restless and dissatisfied, unwilling to pursue any purpose in her life beyond the social round and the marriage market. Fanny’s brother Tom is enjoying himself but learning little in college, while Polly’s brother Will earnestly works toward a future as a minister. The rest of the novel chronicles some of their trials and triumphs, along with a dash of romance.

As usual in Alcott’s children’s books, there is an overtly didactic strain to the narrative, with small lectures about honesty, hard work, and selflessness. Although that did not bother me unduly, I found the characters to be less distinctive and nuanced than in Little Women, and Polly is a bit too much of a paragon to fully blossom into life. But there are some scenes of the type that Alcott does best, portraying the domestic details of family life with a wry sense of humor. She also gives us an unusual, sympathetic portrait of the life of a nineteenth-century working woman. I don’t think Alcott was unaware of the irony embedded in her title — her “old-fashioned girl” is actually the one who is least a slave to fashion and the most in tune with what she truly wants and needs. By remaining steadfastly “old-fashioned,” Polly heralds the new, forward-looking potential of women for self-determination and independence.

Along these lines, in the middle of the second part there’s a startling scene where Polly introduces Fanny to some of her friends, a community of happy, busy single women with vocations of various kinds. One of them is an artist working on a sculpture of the woman of the future, a figure she refuses to portray holding any of the conventional female symbolic attributes in her hands. At her feet, along with a needle, a pen, and other instruments of her power, the sculptor places a ballot box — quite a daring statement for the time.

Alas, after this the story devolves into a fairly conventional love quadrangle plot. There’s a reversal of fortune, which allows for a demonstration of how moral character is developed through poverty. Misunderstandings cause some tension and suffering, but reconciliation comes in the end. In a mischievous coda, after promising to match up everyone in sight, Alcott leaves one of her characters as a contented spinster — a hint at how she might have stretched the bounds of convention, if she hadn’t felt compelled to defer to her audience.

In the scene referred to above, Alcott also seems to have placed a self-portrait, an author who “wrote a popular book by mistake” and now is worn-out and ill, a slave to her own success. It’s endlessly fascinating and frustrating to contemplate what Alcott might have produced if she had been able to develop her talent more freely, bolstered by good health and financial security. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, she at least gives us some glimpses.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Children’s Classic 
Classics Club List #28 


Death in Venice: The Aspern Papers

Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

Henry James and I have not gotten along in the past. When I was compelled to read The Turn of the Screw in school, I was completely befuddled. Then I heard from other readers that James’s writing was convoluted or impenetrable, and I wasn’t interested in trying to break through that tangle.

But I’ve been nagged by the need to give him another chance, and a novella seemed the best way to do so without a huge time commitment. The Aspern Papers is only 86 pages long, so how painful could it be?

Actually, not painful at all. This sample of the Master’s writing, at least, is quite lucid. Written in the first person, it tells the story of a man who is in pursuit of papers left behind by the poet he idolizes and studies, Jeffrey Aspern. He tracks them to Venice, to the house of the great man’s former mistress, now an impoverished old woman who lives alone with her niece. Under an assumed name (we never learn his real one), he becomes a lodger in the house and awaits his opportunity to worm out some information about the precious documents. However, complications arise through his growing intimacy with the isolated, attention-starved niece.

With echoes of Rappaccini’s Daughter and Sunset Boulevard, this subtle and quietly chilling character study explores how people can manipulate and hurt one another in manifold ways, not through evil intentions, but through thoughtlessness, ambition, pride, or unresolved suffering. None of the characters is sympathetic, but none can be seen as entirely damnable. The tension builds up gradually to a shocking conclusion worthy of a horror movie, while the setting of the crumbling, aged city with its ineffable beauty complements the human drama perfectly.

The Aspern Papers novella is based on a true story about the poet Shelley (see this post at Behold the Stars for more on that) but it’s not necessary to know that to enjoy it. I can’t say that I found this an entirely congenial read — it was too bleak — but I did find it haunting and well-crafted. Now I’d like to try one of James’s longer works, since the ice has been broken. Any suggestions?

Classics Club list #12
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Novella
Victorian Celebration 2015



Classics Club: One year update

Just over a year ago, I joined the Classics Club with the goal of knocking 50 classics off my personal list within 5 years. How am I doing?

Pretty well, since I’ve read and blogged about nine books so far. Some were titles that I’ve been thinking of for years, others were new discoveries, but I was glad to have read each and every one. Here they are, in order of blog appearance:

I’m hoping to read more from my list over the summer since my pace has slowed a bit in the past few months. And I’m trying to fit most of them into the categories of the Back to the Classics Challenge. This is a little limiting, but I still have plenty to choose from.

Are you doing any classic reading challenges? How is it going?

Camels and Anglo-Cats: The Towers of Trebizond

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)


Judging from just the famous first line of The Towers of Trebizond (” ‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass”) you might think you were in for a humorous travelogue, sort of a midcentury female Bill Bryson. That’s what I expected, but what I got was something quite different.

Narrator Laurie is accompanying her eccentric Aunt Dot and a very High (in the Anglican sense) priest, who are venturing on a missionary society’s scouting expedition to Turkey with the unlikely hope of finding that the Turks are ripe for converting to Anglicanism. The mission is a failure, but we are treated to a tour of Troy, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and more, with a running commentary on Anglicanism, religion in general, love, the Islamic world, Byzantium, bathing, communism, feminism, and camels.

Not only is this book different from what I expected, it’s different from any other book I have ever read. I was charmed and somewhat baffled by turns, and I at least have an Anglican background; I can’t imagine what someone without at least a rudimentary experience of that peculiarly proper faith would make of it. In addition, it must be said that the English-eye view of the Turkish people is not generally one of tolerance and understanding. This could be meant satirically, but be warned that if taken at face value some of the opinions and attitudes expressed may cause deep offense.

As the medium through which all this comes to us, Laurie’s narrative voice is a comic tour de force. Sometimes, especially toward the beginning, she talks in the run-on sentences of a screwball comedy heroine:

The girls thought the altar and the candles and the Mass very cute; one of them had been sometimes to that kind of service in Cambridge, Mass., at a place she called the Monastery, which Father Chantry-Pigg said was where the Cowley Fathers in America lived, but the other girl and her parents were not Episcopalian, they belonged to one of those sects that Americans have, and that are difficult for English people to grasp, though probably they got over from Britain in the Mayflower originally, and when sects arrive in America they multiply, like rabbits in Australia, so that America has about a hundred to each one in Britain, and this is said to be on account of the encouraging climate, which is different in each of the states, and most encouraging of all in the deep south and in California, where sects breed best.

Later on she turns to a form of laconic understatement that I find funnier and less wearisome:

I mean, with religion you get on a different plane, and everything is most odd. It only goes to show that human beings are odd, because they have always been, on the whole, so religious.

But there’s a somber undercurrent to all the seeming frivolity. Laurie is in a moral quandary with no resolution in sight, and mourning the lost faith that she cannot quite relinquish. Her nattering is a sort of whistling in the dark against the emptiness that faces her when hope and faith are gone. In the end, the dark overtakes her, a disquieting conclusion — but one that underlines the modern questions at the heart of her story. Byzantium is gone; the glittering towers of ancient Trebizond are no more. What will we put in their place? Where will our quest lead us, if not toward supernatural reward and punishment? Rose Macaulay gives no answers, but she takes us on one hell of a trip.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Humorous or Satirical Classic
Classics Club List #48


Short and Bittersweet: Bliss and Other Stories

Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories (1920)

I don’t usually seek out short stories, though I often enjoy them when I do read them. Usually I’m looking for a longer-term reading experience, with characters I can live with over time. But when I read Katherine Mansfield’s collection Bliss and Other Stories (having drawn it as my Classics Club Spin book), I was reminded of how a beautifully rendered painting of a few objects, or an insightful portrait, can be a perfect work of art; we don’t always want or need a grand historical canvas with dozens of figures. In the same way these exquisitely written stories cast light on just a few characters or events, with an economy of language that does not lessen their emotional impact, but may even serve to heighten it. Freed from the necessity of plodding through a complicated plot, Mansfield often comes at her subjects in a surprising, sideways manner, with effects that are sometimes startling, sometimes amusing, but always masterfully done.

I know next to nothing about Mansfield, except that she was from New Zealand. This gave me the notion that her stories would be set in that country and that I would learn something about that place. However, this turns out not to be a strong element, at least in this particular collection; many of the stories are set in Europe, and the only one that is obviously set in New Zealand, the opening novella called “Prelude,” is far more occupied with the inner lives of the characters and their particular physical circumstances than with the setting in a wider sense. This is in no way a drawback, only a false expectation that I had to overcome in the process of reading.

The stories often end with a reversal or down-turn in the protagonist’s fortunes, but so light was Mansfield’s touch that this somehow did not depress me as it does with some authors. Comedy and tragedy can be very close together, and these stories delicately reveal their affinity.

Many more of Mansfield’s stories await me in my e-book edition. I’m sure I’ll be dipping into them again for a brief, invigorating dose of a fine writer’s art.

Review copy source: Free e-book from Girlebooks
Classics Club List #40


Back to the Classics Challenge

I heard about the Back to the Classics challenge too late to join last year, so I was glad when Karen of Books and Chocolate decided to host it again. Visit the sign-up post for the full rules, but basically the idea is to read and post about 6-12 classics (pre-1965) in different categories during the year. Participants who complete the challenge will be entered in a drawing for a $30 gift card, but everyone can share in the rewards of reading and discussing great books.

Here are my current ideas about what I would like to read, but that may change during the course of the year. For economy’s sake, I’ve overlapped with my Classics Club list and other events wherever possible — hey, it’s not against the rules!

A 19th Century Classic: Armadale by Wilkie Collins

A 20th Century Classic: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

A Classic by a Woman Author: The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

A Classic in Translation: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

A Very Long Classic Novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A Classic Novella: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

A Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

A Humorous or Satirical Classic: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

A Forgotten Classic: Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

A Nonfiction Classic: Three Houses by Angela Thirkell

A Classic Children’s Book: An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

A Classic Play: The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder

Are you participating in this or other challenges? What are your reading plans in 2015?