Hermann Hesse the Glass Bead Game

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Magister Ludi
(The Glass Bead Game)
Hermann Hesse

Translated from the German Das Glasperlenspiel by Richard and Clard Winston with a Forword by Theodore Ziolkowski

By Theodore Ziolkowski THE GLASS BEAD GAME, Hermann Hesse's last major work, appeared in Switzerland in 1943. When Thomas Mann, then living in California, received the two volumes of that first edition, he was dumbfounded by the conspicuous parallels between Hesse's "Tentative Sketch of the Life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht" and the novel that he himself was writing, Doctor Faustus (1947). For all their differences in mood, style and theme, both works employ a similar fiction: a pleasant though somewhat pompous narrator recounts, with a sympathy matched only by his pedantry, the life of a man whom he loves and admires. Since in each case the narrator is incapable of fully comprehending the problematic genius of his biographical subject, an ironic tension is produced between the limited perspective of the narrator and the fuller vision that he unwittingly conveys to the reader. Both authors were obsessed, in addition, with the self-destructive course of modern civilization, and this concern pervades both novels. But Mann's view is more immediate. His narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, can see and hear the exploding bombs of World War Two as he writes, and the spectacular career of the composer Adrian Leverkühn parallels with ominous precision the history of Germany from the declining Empire through the shortlived brilliance of the Weimar Republic to the raging madness of National Socialism. In Hesse's novel, in contrast, that same period is described with the detachment of a narrator looking back at the "Age of the Feuilleton" from a vantage point in the distant future. Unlike Mann's Leverkühn, Hesse's Joseph Knecht succeeds in analyzing the dangers of an excessive aestheticism and acts to avert the catastrophe of intellectual irresponsibility. In both novels, finally, the authors slyly weave their experience of our culture into a pastiche of hidden quotations and characters à clef. Thomas Mann, immediately sensing that the serious theme of Hesse's novel was enclosed within "a cunning artistic joke," recognized the source of its humor in "the parody of biography and the grave scholarly attitude." But people won't dare to laugh, he wrote Hesse. "And you will be secretly annoyed at their dead-earnest respect." Hesse was pleased that his friend had put a finger on the comic aspect of the novel, but Mann's prediction was correct. In the quarter-century since its publication, The Glass Bead Game has enjoyed the adulation customarily awarded to literary "classics." Indeed, largely on its merits Hesse received in 1946 the Nobel Prize for which Mann, among others, had repeatedly nominated him. Hesse's opus magnum was one of the first works by a distinguished emigré to be published in Germany after the war, and it has been regularly reprinted there since 1946. The book was dutifully translated into English, Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages. But the novel, whose title has supplied us with one of those imagistically suggestive catchwords for our age, like "the Waste Land" or "the Magic Mountain," has suffered the fate of many classics -- it is less frequently read than cited, more often studied than appreciated. In Germany many readers, blandly ignoring the implicit criticism in the novel, tended to see in Hesse's cultural province nothing but a welcome Utopian escape from the harsh postwar realities. More discerning European critics have usually been so preoccupied with the fashionably grave implications that they have neither laughed at its humor nor smiled at its ironies. In part these one-sided readings are understandable, for the humor is often hidden in private jokes of the sort to which Hesse became increasingly partial in his later years. The games begin on the title-page, for the motto attributed to "Albertus Secundus" is...
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