Sunday, November 16, 2014

Demian by Herman Hesse

Emil Sinclair is on a search to find himself. Starting the story as an innocent kid who nevertheless senses there is a darker part of the world to which he is not yet privy, he falls into bad company, has his facade of innocence ripped away, and is eventually brought to self-awareness by art, a few acquaintances, and the titular Demian, an enigmatic embodiment of aloof perfection.

I'm perfectly willing to admit that, as premises go, this isn't a bad one. Of Human Bondage is very similar structurally, for instance, and it's one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. And Demian starts out with a lot of promise--and it's worth noting that the writing is quite good clear through--but fizzles out in a mess of self-important, unengaging crap.

The opening vignette in the novel would have made a great standalone story: Emil, hoping to impress an older boy, tells an elaborate lie about how he and some other boys regularly steal apples from a nearby orchard. After extracting an oath from Emil that the story is true, the older boy blackmails him, telling him there is a reward for the person who turns in whoever has been stealing the apples, and agreeing not to rat on Emil only if he is paid an equivalent amount. Fearing the reprisal of his parents and the police, Emil engages in petty crime--stealing from said parents, mostly--to pay his debt, all while feeling as though he has left the world of good and stepped inextricably into the world of evil.

The problem with extracting even this section of the novel, which drums up a real sense of dread over a dilemma that the adult reader knows isn't really serious, is that it's resolved by bringing in the book's walking, talking Deus Ex Machina, Demian. He talks to the bully and the bully backs off, never to speak to Emil again. If you're hoping to learn what was said, keep hoping. It cheapens the whole episode and makes it feel like the scene in a bad action movie where the villain kills his right hand man just to show how evil he is.

And what can I say about Demian? He's never given much of a personality or, really, much to do besides dispense cryptic wisdom and look pretty. The most interesting thing about his character is the homoerotic subtext that run through the novel, which is never mentioned or alluded to, which makes me wonder if Hesse was aware and choosing this as the one place to inject subtlety into his story, or if he was so in love with the character himself that he was unaware of how it came across. The subtext, alas, is just another area where Demian refuses to pay off.

The story ends SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER with Emil living in some sort of commune with Demian, Demian's mother--who Emil really wants to (and maybe does?) sleep with--and a few other seekers who, Emil realizes, are just too caught up in their own beliefs to recognize the essential oneness of the universe, or whatever. Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but there's no evidence of why here--this book blows. It's a novel of ideas with no novel ideas, a character study with no real characters, a story without any stakes.


Christopher said...

How did you even end up reading this? Why this and not Siddhartha or Steppenwolf?

Brent Waggoner said...

This was the one I owned. I think I might still read Siddhartha even though this one sucked. This IS the only book of his that won the Nobel though.

Christopher said...

False. Writers win Nobels, not works.

Brent Waggoner said...


Christopher said...

False. Black bear.