Steppenwolf, Concluding Rant

See Review Part 1, spoiler free


The second half of Steppenwolf takes quite a drastic turn. Leaving the funeral behind, our narrator Harry Haller—at the lowest of low spirits—wanders the streets and ends up at a bar, where he meets an attractive, spirited young woman. Through Hermine, he is reminded he is living in the roaring Weimar Republic, not the stuffy old German Empire of his books and classical music. Leaving philosophy behind, Harry gets pulled into the nightlife of the city—and much more—when Hermine challenges him to learn how to dance the fox trot.

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Sōseki’s The Gate & Hesse’s Steppenwolf: Halfway Impressions

I’m approximately halfway through two novels: The Gate (1910) by Natsume Sōseki and Steppenwolf (1927) by Hermann Hesse. By sheer coincidence, these are novels in which seemingly nothing happens. “Rotten luck,” you might say. But so far, I am rather enjoying both books. It could be that those in a flustered state of mind (as I have been lately) will find some repose in a book that doesn’t demand much from you emotionally.

A Metaphysical Werewolf

Steppenwolf, indeed, is what I would describe as a philosophical ramble, more autofiction than fiction. Our main character is caught between two worlds, the bourgeois and the bohemian. He is also caught between two selves, the “wolf” (chaos) and the man (order). However, as the monologue unfolds, he tells us that the real conflict goes beyond polarity and that a human really has a multitude of personalities within them. A rebel, the Steppenwolf manages to break free of the bourgeois only enough to reach its outer limits. Still, there is something that holds him back—nostalgia, perhaps—and anchors him irrevocably to conventional life. Having disdained his first community and found no other, all that is left him is loneliness.

That is a very simplified summary of the book so far, but enough to intrigue me. I see similarities to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, inasmuch as the depressed narrator suffers from what I would describe as too narrow a scope, a kind of self-centeredness that manifests itself as self-degradation. (If I remember correctly, the Steppenwolf even acknowledges this at one point.) A love interest has just been introduced so we will see where the story goes from here, even though the ending was already teased in the first chapter. It’s a peculiar book, but one where I find myself highlighting many quotes and passages.

Money and Marriage

The Gate is a more accessible book—on the surface, a very low-key family drama taking place in 1910s Japan. Those looking for a twisty plot will be disappointed. Personally, I absolutely love character-driven novels, so the plight of Sōsuke and Oyone, a happily married couple approaching middle age, is more than enough for me to chew on.

The novel follows their everyday lives as they try to make ends meet, deal with Sōsuke’s brother’s education, and come to terms with their grief at having no children. Historical, social, and religious themes abound, but they are subtly painted through the life events, giving the reader plenty of space to draw their own conclusions. I especially enjoy the dignity and respect granted to Oyone, who plays an unglamorous role as housewife but is arguably the glue that holds the whole story together.

The Value of Slow

Sad thing is, I suspect if either of these novels were to be pitched to an agent today, they’d have great difficulty finding a champion for them. Rather than demand your attention, The Gate and Steppenwolf merely extend a cordial invitation to spend a little time in an existential crisis—one, gentle and domestic… the other, psychological and ultimately harrowing.

I don’t need to be dragged into a book to appreciate it, and right now, “slow” is just the proverbial chicken noodle soup I need. More than that, I’m personally invested in both stories now and feel they have much to offer modern readers.

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June, Lately

Reading

I am still reading (and enjoying) The Gate by Natsume Sōseki. I find more and more I enjoy books about historical zeitgeist, and this is exactly what The Gate embodies: Japan between the old world and the new.

I’ve also picked up Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I was so impressed by Beneath the Wheel that it’s sent me on a mission to read the other Hesse ebooks my library has. The author’s note to Steppenwolf captivated me entirely, along with the first pages introducing a mysterious protagonist. The only reason I’m not well into it by now is because of life busyness. I hope to settle down with it for an hour or two this evening. Any other Hesse readers? I’m shocked he’s not more famous.

Watching

I watched Europa Report (2013) again with my mom, who hadn’t seen it before. I’m not sure if she enjoyed it quite as much as I did, but even on second viewing, it’s still one of my favorites! Told in “found footage” (webcams, vlogs), it reaches a level of plausibility that few sci-fi films can. Most of all, I love the subtle characterizations, social commentary, and gutsy female lead.

I recently reviewed two martial arts films on my other blog: The Swordsman and Shaolin. Both were excellent stories with sumptuous costumes, music, and cinematography. There is something so timeless about the “Robin Hood” story arc, central to The Swordsman and significant in Shaolin, along with the themes of family, love, and betrayal. It really shows you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when you write a good story—you just need to put your own take on it.

And speaking of storytelling… Yesterday I watched Snowpiercer (2013) with my siblings. I enjoyed the trailer and the concept of the story: humanity’s last survivors segregated on a high-speed train during an ice age. I didn’t like the film itself… for me, there was too much unnecessary gore, socialist undertones, and unlikely scenarios, and the story was mostly told through expository dialogue. Your mileage may vary (no pun intended); my brother really liked it. I will say, it was a lot like the novel Blindness except significantly better!

Listening

I’ve been really getting into the band Deep Sea Diver lately, which is actually based here in Seattle. The musicality of the frontwoman, Jessica Dobson, is incredible. The songwriting also reaches that level of depth and philosophy I especially gravitate towards. Their music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like rock, post rock, and indie folk, it’s worth a listen.

Personal

It’s been about two months since my grandpa passed away, suddenly. The last time I saw him, we were alone in a dark hospital room and I had to trust he could hear me because he couldn’t respond. I didn’t feel like writing about it online till some of the grief had gone. Well, it still makes me cry sometimes, but the reality of his absence has really solidified now.

He left behind a lot of books, many of which I’ve kept because he had excellent taste. He was a skilled learner, maker, and artist, though never one to boast. It faded as he struggled with memory loss in his last years. But what really stands out to me now, two months later, is that Grandpa is one of the few people I know who can be said to have left a true legacy, the family and home he cultivated and the faithfulness he lived. In that sense, he still lives on here on Earth, as well as in Heaven.

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Quotes from Jakob von Gunten

I mentioned in the previous post how much I struggled with Robert Walser’s novel yet how beautiful the writing was. With more thought, I’m not sure if “beautiful” is the best descriptor. The beauty is not in the prose itself but in the reaction it can draw from you. This book is written similar to a diary, somewhat stream-of-consciousness; the abrupt transition from thought to thought is part of its power. It’s a loveliness that sneaks up on you.

All that said, here are some moments I sticky-noted in my NYRB edition. Much credit to the translator, Christopher Middleton.

Nothing can excite me so deeply as the sight and smell of what is good and just. You soon reach the end of feeling about vulgar and evil things, but to get wise to something good and noble is so difficult, and yet also so alluring. (p. 23)

I hate the kind of person who pretends he understands everything and beamingly parades knowledge and wit. Sly and knowing people are to me an unspeakable abomination. (p. 41)

Seriously: people obeying orders usually look just like the people giving orders. (p. 58)

For some time past, the world has been revolving around money, not around history. All the ancient heroic virtues you unpack have lost their importance long ago, you know it yourself. (p. 60)

The masses are the slaves of today, and the individual is the slave of the vast mass-ideas . . . You must dream up beauty and goodness and justice. Tell me, do you know how to dream? (p. 69)

These are jokes, the world just likes jokes. I don’t, but it doesn’t matter, all this. I feel how little it concerns me, everything that’s called “the world,” and how grand and exciting what I privately call the world is to me. (p. 124)

To be robust means not spending time on thought but quickly and quietly entering into what has to be done. (p. 136)

Quick goodbyes are loveless, and long ones are unbearable (p. 142)

I am dying . . . of the emptiness of cautious and clever people . . . (p. 156)

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