What exactly do you remember about novels that you read years ago? Pieces of the plot, bits of the characters or their idiosyncrasies, the drama, the lyricism, the realism? From ‘Wuthering Heights’ what sticks in my mind is the unswerving obsession of Heathcliff for Cathy and those infinite wild moors. From a Michael Ondaatje novel the hero’s desire to know all about his girl’s past, including what desk she sat at in school. From a Paul Scott novel the elderly Lucy Smalley sitting on the toilet and crying in despair at the death of Tusker, her husband, and cursing him for staying on in India after independence. These may be inaccurate recollections but they are the ones that vividly remain in the palate of memory.
When given ‘Siddartha’ to review I thought to myself out of curiosity before re-reading it after a gap of eight years, what sits out, what do you remember? I remembered its spirituality, its sensuality. I remembered that it was about a young Indian monk who seeks the meaning of life, first through asceticism, then as a wanderer, before settling down as a ferryman and experiencing something close to Nirvana. I also recalled that along the way he had a love affair with a beautiful courtesan who taught him the pleasures of the flesh.
Re-reading it, the novel was much shorter than I thought, but even more beautiful: such a slender novel written in simple prose yet laden with immense significance. Reflecting Hesse’s interest in the cultures and spiritual wisdom of the East, his writing was particularly influenced by the ‘Upanishads’ (philosophical texts of Hindu teachers and sages dating from 1000 BC) and ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ (the ‘Song of God’ – the greatest of the Indian epic, ‘Mahabharata’).
Set in the sixth century BC it is the story of Siddhartha, the exemplary son of a Brahmin (priest), and his friend Govinda who, because of Siddhartha’s dreams and restless thoughts, leave home and join the Samanas, wandering ascetics, renowned for their unpitying self-denial. Eventually realising that ‘Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom’, Siddhartha decides to part from Govinda and the Samanas. Before leaving he meets Buddha who tells him: ‘Let me warn you, you who are thirsty for knowledge, against the thicket of opinions and the conflict of words. Opinions mean nothing; they may be beautiful or ugly, clever or foolish, anyone can embrace or reject them… Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’
Siddhartha leaves and crosses a river in search of truth and learning, but instead is seduced by the ‘real’ world, a world which he once thought ‘stank of lies’ and was full of ‘illusions of sense, happiness and beauty,’ but which is now sensuous and beautiful when looked at ‘without any seeking’. He becomes rich and arrogant, is a successful gambler, and then realises one day that twenty years of pleasure with Kamala, the courtesan, have passed by, and he had forgotten his goal. Remorseful, he leaves Kamala (whom he does not know is pregnant) and, wandering again, meets the humble ferryman who had transported him across the river many years earlier. He asks to work for the ferryman from whom he gains much wisdom. He learns once again to pronounce the holy word, ‘Om’, which had the meaning of ‘the Perfect One’ or ‘Perfection’. He also learns to ‘listen’ to the river, the River of Life, and saw that ‘the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new.’
(Incidentally, the philosophy of tolerance, understanding and patience, expressed in ‘Siddhartha’ was very popular with the Hippies back in the 1960s. One US couple in an Oregon commune, the Phoenixes, took the name of their son, the late actor, from the River in this novel.)
Siddartha lives contentedly by the river until eleven years later when Kamala, now in search of spiritual truth herself and looking for Buddha, arrives in tragic circumstances with her son, Little Siddartha. Father and son do not get along and Siddartha then realises that he too caused his father heartache through disobedience and leaving home. By the river he has learned humility and in the river he hears humanity’s voices, ‘all the voices, all the souls, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.’
Hesse is one of my favourite writers, a man of great humanity as all his novels attest. As a critic he would review only those books about which he could say something favourable. He didn’t believe there was any order of precedence among religions, and though he admired the Catholic Church he wrote, ‘ as soon as I approach, it has a smell, like every human institution, a strong smell of blood and power, of politics and secrecy.’
My favourite novel is Hesse’s ‘Knulp’, a short novel from 1915. It is a simple story about a vagrant man who as a teenager gave up a promising scholarship for a girl, Franziska, whom one day he discovers is unfaithful. Knulp, now 40 and dying of consumption, is reflecting and thinks that had he not been wronged he would have had the strength and the will to make something of himself, instead of being a tramp. He had remained an ‘outsider’ from that day, a wanderer, and it is only at the end of this lovely, moving book that his life is explained to him and he finds peace. Every time I read it I know how it ends but I still have tears in my eyes.
Hesse wondered and doubted how much of what he had intended or strove for in his work, his creations, his ethics, his morality, had been noted by the reader or absorbed into the reader’s consciousness. He need not have worried. Though a novel like ‘The Glass Bead Game’ can be heavy going, generally speaking Hesse’s work is a pleasure, forcing us to consider what our lives, what are souls are about, and what we are to each other.