Growing up, I never valued the importance of fiction. Looking back, this was an inexcusable oversight on my part; fiction can and has shaped the world. Could slavery have been abolished so soon without the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Would the gradual acceptance of American migrant workers have been possible without Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath? While fiction has transformed society on a grand scale, it also holds the power of self-improvement. Artistic expression first asserted itself on my unsuspecting consciousness thanks to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. It was my transformative experience, and it could be for you too.
It is a common theme, young adults following a life path of reluctant indifference. They take a job they don’t want whilst justifying their decision with “but it pays well” or enrolling in a university course because “my parents wanted me to be a lawyer”, and so on. I followed a similar path until I encountered the works of Hesse. Their magic lies in the ability to make you want to traverse an unknown path, to experience life and to immerse yourself in what truly makes you happy. Whether your happiness lies in art, sciences, or starting a family, something that gives meaning to your life, without allowing the judgement of others to influence your decisions.
Hesse was born in Calw, Germany in 1877. Following a traditional monastic education, he rebelled and pursued a career in writing. Indeed, the seed of his later emphasis on self-discovery was present in this personal revolution. While Hesse gained the literary respect of his nation and peers, such as winning the Nobel Prize in 1946, his works did not flourish internationally until the mid 60s when they became popular with the counterculture movement. Unfortunately, this international acclaim came a few years too late – he died in 1963.
It is no surprise that Hesse became a significant figure for the counterculture movement; it is an innate quality of youth to seek life and meaning on your own terms. Hesse’s themes of self-discovery, the creation of meaning and the balance of both structure and passion in life will remain influential as long as there are young readers to read it.
Complimenting these themes, Hesse incorporates Eastern influences into his works, most prominently seen in Siddhartha, the journey of a man seeking enlightenment. While the story parallels that of Buddha, it diverges from its religious inspiration as the flawed Siddhartha, less successfully, seeks experience and enlightenment. This Oriental influence makes itself apparent in a host of his other works, such as Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game.
Hesse’s idiosyncratic combination of eloquent and poetic prose, inspiring themes and Eastern influences demonstrate a unique experience for the reader. I am yet to read any novels comparable to Hesse’s and I believe that is why I always find myself returning to these works. While many of the classics enhance and change the way we subjectively think, Hesse’s novels have the power to revolutionise. So, if you ever spot a Hesse novel in your local bookshop, it might just be worth picking up.