Monday, 8 February 2010

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Philosophical novel and cult sixties read, Steppenwolf is about the dichotomy of Harry Haller, a man both lone wolf of the steppes and sophisticated mystic, a ‘suicide’ unable to join the two halves of his personality.

Hesse complained that his book had been violently misunderstood, which was almost certainly a pop at the counterculture’s enthusiasm for the drug taking and frank sexuality in the latter half of the novel to the detriment of its more subtle nuances. At risk of being accused of a misunderstanding myself, here’s a quick dash through some of its boozy references.

Steppenwolf takes the form of a set of notes by Haller, containing A Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a pamphlet he is given in the street, and a preface by the nephew of the lady renting a room to Haller. The nephew, a rather serious young man, takes a liking to Haller, despite his rather dissolute behaviour. A furtive prowl around Haller’s room while he’s out confirms the nephew’s suspicions that he’s a lush:

On the big table among the books and papers there was often a vase of flowers. There, too, a paint box, generally full of dust, reposed among flakes of cigar ash and (to leaving nothing out) sundry bottles of wine. There was a straw-covered bottle usually containing Italian red wine, which he procured from a little shop in the neighbourhood; often, too, a bottle of Burgundy as well as Malaga; and a squat bottle of Cherry brandy was, as I saw, nearly emptied in a very brief space – after which it disappeared in a corner of the room, there to collect the dust without further diminution of its contents.

He follows him into a tavern one night and sits with him, an experience that does nothing to change his mind:

We sat there for an hour, and while I drank two glasses of mineral water, he accounted for a pint of red wine and then called for another half.

Mind you, Haller’s own accounts of his nights spent down the pub relate some steady imbibing:

None the less, the quiet of the place was worth something; no crowds, no music; only a few peaceful townsfolk at bare wooden tables (no marble, no enamel, no plush, no brass) and before each his evening glass of good old wine. Perhaps this company of habitués, all of whom I know by sight, were all regular Philistines and had in the Philistine dwellings their dreary altars of the home dedicated to sheepish idols of contentment; perhaps, too, they were solitary fellows who had been sidetracked, quiet, thoughtful topers of bankrupt ideals, lone wolves and poor devils like me... Here I cast anchor, for an hour, or it might be two. With the first sip of Elsasser I realized that I had eaten nothing that day since breakfast.

Wine by the pint cannot be a good idea, especially on an empty stomach. Could this be the real provenance of the illuminated letters on the wall advertising the Magic Theatre. Entrance not for Everybody. For Madmen Only...


  1. Alex here... I enjoyed reading this, considering it hasn't been too long since I read the book myself.

    Despite the scarcity of booze-related scenes, I find it a fitting book for this myself. The last scenes are a wonder to myself, I like the almost 'cliff-hanger' ending of it.

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  3. I must confess far less erudite inspiration for reading the book: I picked it up after listening to Hawkwind's song of the same name. Every page for me resonates to Dave Brock's guitar line and Bob Calvert's refrain: 'Maybe it was only an hallucination, I'm no stranger to this kind of thing'...

    120 Units. Where high and low art can freely mingle!

  4. I found it a surprise when I found a 70's rock band called 'Steppenwolf'. Not bad listening, but don't like they have their finger on the pulse, really.

    As I've read elsewhere, the book is about coming out of depression, and yet from the way it is written, there is not much to wonder at why it is so misunderstood. The highlight for myself is the hedonistic aspect at the end of the book.

  5. Hesse’s thoughts on the nature of a suicide are very interesting – I can agree with the report that the book was written during quite a turbulent part of the author’s life.

    Steppenwolf (the band) are I suppose another example of violent misunderstanding. That said, the song Born to be Wild is rather good. Well, it works in Easy Rider...