A review of The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse
There are a lot of spoilers below, but if you're considering reading the book and haven't: This is a very entertaining satire of ivory-tower academia, and some other themes, by an excellent writer. Highly recommended. You'll enjoy it. Now stop reading.
Okay, now for the spoilers.
I've seen people wondering just how serious this book is. How much may we take at face value? Is there the remotest possibility that a human could churn out verbiage like "Unhampered by sudden revelations and indiscretions, the sublime process moved to its conclusion" without tongue lodged firmly in cheek? What is Hesse getting at here?
Well, I'm here to clear everything up. The entire book is satire, from stodgy academia to hallucinatory alternate lives. Reading The Glass Bead Game as satire is by far the more enjoyable alternative, doing so is the most charitable reading of the work (as I'll explain shortly), and the number of people who have taken the thing in deadly earnest is frankly disturbing. Sure, it may have changed your life when you read it at 14 with no life experience, but, if it's been a few years, read it again. It's funny. Laugh.
I actually picked this up after reading an opinion piece claiming that the modern always-connected lifestyle had destroyed attention, using as an example the columnist's inability to focus on books she used to enjoy, such as The Glass Bead Game. I'm afraid that the columnist's growing up and acquiring responsibilities probably did worse things for her attention span than her iPhone. But whatever -- with that piece in mind, I approached The Glass Bead Game with some degree of trepidation. But after the first forty pages or so, it became clear that this was only a problem for her because she took the thing seriously. By page 40 Hesse is writing of the hero, Knecht, that "His was the typical evolution of every noble mind; working and growing harmoniously and at the same tempo, the inner self and the outer world approached each other." As a sly parody of the way prodigies are heralded in media, appearing fully-formed, conquering all without effort, that's a hilarious description. As a serious attempt to describe Knecht, it's ridiculous. Worse, it's sloppy writing, effectively saying that Knecht was amazing without explaining how or why.
This is why the most charitable explanation of this book is as satire. It's the only excuse the writer could have for churning out what is brilliant as social commentary, but is dross otherwise. There is tell after tell after tell. The annual public Game being compared in majesty and religious solemnity to a performance of Bach's Passions (p 185). The way Knecht reproaches his friend's minor outburst "wordlessly, merely by a gesture of his finger" and later sends the Meditation Master to calm him down (p 208). The most ridiculously overblown description of a Purcel piece ever (p 293). Knecht's reflecting on literally the entirety of human knowledge and creation "if seen with a truly meditative mind" as "nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created" (p 105). I mean come on.
Oddly, this is the second book I've read about a genius game-player, and it suffers from the same problem as the first one (Iain Banks' The Player Of Games) in that the game being played is so complicated, and the hero is playing it at so high a level, that there is no way the author can actual describe it in text. Banks didn't even try; Hesse gestures weakly at Bach fugues and Leibniz.
Obviously, there is a serious core -- that's the point of satire, after all. Unfortunately the serious core is not very interesting. Knecht is an incredibly boring stand-in for the narrator, perfect at everything, overcoming his enemies with minimal effort. His youthful zeal for Castalia giving way to a chastened respect for the world outside academia and his vain and ill-conceived attempts to bring the two together are, as a life lesson, fairly insipid. Academia must be in dialogue with the world in order for both to flourish. Nobility owes a debt to the society that raised it up. Power corrupts. Yawn.
But, Nicholas, what of nuance? Couldn't Hesse have written in a pompous, overblown way to draw humorous attention to his serious ideas? Could Knecht's time in Castalia have been an actual ideal of Hesse's? I agree that it's possible, but I hope that it wasn't the intent: as a morality piece, it's not only weak, but -- cardinal sin, for writers! -- very boring. As satire, it's too long (his last book -- presumably his editor gave him too much leeway), but creative, interesting, and very funny.