Literature

© Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin

“That the potential arise you need
to dare the impossible.” Hermann Hesse

 

Alongside Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, Hermann Hesse ranks as one of the most widely read German-speaking authors of the 20th century. His books have been translated into more than 60 languages and approximately 150 million copies of his works are in circulation around the globe. German editions account for barely a sixth of these.

 

The author, whose parents had served as Protestant missionaries to India, was born in the Swabian town of Calw in 1877. His formative years were spent here as well as in Basle, Maulbronn and Tübingen and his numerous stories reflect his distinctive Alemannic and cosmopolitan roots. He enjoyed early success with his first novels, which included “Peter Camenzind” and “Beneath the Wheel”. He achieved even greater acclaim with the works he published after the First World War, such as “Demian”, “Siddhartha”, “Steppenwolf”, “Narcisuss and Goldmund”, “The Journey to the East” and his late pedagogical work “The Glass Bead Game” (or "Magister Ludi”), which was awarded the Nobel prize in 1946. He died in his adopted village of Montagnola in the Swiss canton of Ticino in 1962.

 

By 1912, the author had already abandoned Kaiser Wilhelm II’s militant Germany and settled in Berne, from where he was able to observe and counter German politics with an increasingly critical eye. During the First World War, he founded the “Kriegsgefangenfürsorge-Zentrale” (prisoner of war welfare centre) in Berne and became a point of contact for countless emigrants between 1933 and 1945. It was not until two years after the author’s death that his works achieved a level of renown that may be described as unparalleled within the entire history of German literature. This development can be traced back to the USA during the Vietnam War, where Hesse had become a figure of resistance to this war and a hero for the rebellious youth movement. In the name of the pacifism espoused by Hesse, draft cards and conscription orders were burnt. With slogans such as “Make love, not war!”, the “Flower Power” movement played a key role in the abolition of compulsory military service in 1973, the year in which the USA withdraw from Vietnam. With a million copies of his books in the hands of America's youth and with the popularisation of the Asian philosophy he had made so topical in his works, the stage was set: this author began to enjoy something of a renaissance in many other countries too, with this trend continuing today. The author’s ability to appeal to each new generation can be explained by the death of eurocentrism and Hesse’s call for people to live a self-determined existence in resistance to blind obedience and conformism and ready-made ideologies. To counter the growing sense of disorientation, he presents a forward-looking world view that combines tradition and modernity as well as ethics and aesthetics.

 

The first ever edition of the author's complete works, comprising approximately 14,000 pages spread across 20 volumes, was completed in 2005. This also contains all of his political articles that had previously been published in newspapers and periodicals, as well as the reviews he wrote recommending other books. This development opens up a whole new chapter of academic study involving this author.

 

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