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Friday, June 01, 2018

The Glass Bead Game (1943) by Herman Hesse


Book Review
The Glass Bead Game (1943)
 by Herman Hesse

  The 22 hour audiobook version I listened to could charitably described as tedious.  The Glass Bead Game was published in 1943, and Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.  A new English translation in 1969 was part of the general 1960's era rise in interest in Hesse within the English speaking world, and in 2018 The Glass Bead Game remains in the canon as Hesse' most substantial (550 plus pages) work.

  Part bildungsroman, part biography, part science fiction and part utopia, The Glass Bead Game combines all these genres to tell the story of Joseph Knecht, a member of a monastic order living several centuries into the future.  This is a world that has turned it's back on the violence of the 20th century- Knecht is part of an order of secular monk types who call themselves Castalians.  The Castalians eschew worldly trappings and dedicate themselves to lives of study, either as specialized scholars or teachers.  The group obsession of the Castalian order is The Glass Bead Game- which is described as a "synthesis of human knowledge" but never described in a mechanical sense.   The impression I received is that it was a combination of board game and debate competition.

  Almost the entirety of the book involves the characters making lengthy speeches to one another, ususally while sitting in an office or other neutral space.  There is- I think- a single female character.  Knecht spends most of  the 500 pages yearning to escape the restrictions of monkish life and devote himself to his passion: teaching young boys, the younger the better.  Although I'm sure this wasn't the intent of the author, Knecht sounds like a pedophile with his young boy obsession- the more isolated the is with said boy- the better.

  And indeed his death finally comes after he achieves his goal, retreating a mountain top with the son of a friend, only to meet his death trying to match the youthful vigour of his charge by swimming with him in a dangerous river.   The end of the main narrative is followed by a collection of poetry written by Knecht, which I found unlistenable and three sub narratives purportedly written by Knecht himself, imagining himself living in different historic time periods.   It is a strange way to end a novel, let alone end a novel that was written just before the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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