Herman Hesse, the German-Swiss poet, novelist and painter, was born in 1877 in Calw, Germany. His parents were Christian missionaries, with interests in book publishing, and young Herman grew up in a world of theological discussion. Through his grandfather, who had worked in India as a missionary, he also possessed a keen awareness of Eastern philosophy and spirituality.
A precocious, energetic and rebellious boy, he apparently had a gift for everything – drawing, writing and music. His disruptive behaviour, however, led to constant changes of school, including a mental institution. Hurt by what he perceived as parental rejection, his resentment would continue to erupt in adulthood; and Hesse railed against the establishment, adult authority and organised religion for the rest of his life. He would also endure nerve disorders and persistent headaches.
Leaving school at 15, he passed through various jobs, before settling with a book publisher in Basel, Switzerland. This gave him financial independence from his parents; and the chance to write and sell his own material. He travelled to India in 1911, wrote both short novels and poetry, but his first literary success came in 1919 with the novel Demian – a book rooted in the psychoanalytical ideas of Jung.
This was followed by Siddartha, a story based on the early life of Gautama Buddha, and concerned with the human search for self-knowledge and authentic spirituality. He had written the first part easily enough, but had to stop for a year with depression, before completing it in 1922. The book is a synthesis of Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and Christian thought, though Hesse rejected all conventional religion for a more individual and personal path. As he wrote: ‘The only thing of importance to me is being able to love the world, without looking down on it, without hating it and myself – being able to regard it and myself and all beings with love, admiration and reverence.’
His first marriage, to Maria Bernoulli, gave him three children, but much unhappiness as Maria was increasingly troubled by schizophrenia. His second marriage lasted only months, before Hesse eventually found companionship with Ninon Doblin, a Jewish art historian. Concerning love, he wrote in 1904: ‘Oh, love isn’t there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.’
In 1914, at the outset of WW1, Hesse the writer put his head above the parapet and wrote against German imperialism. The reaction was strong, with the German press declaring him a traitor. He experienced hate mail for the first time and lost many former friends. Hesse was a pacifist throughout his life, and in 1923, became a Swiss citizen. He now remained aloof from politics, and though he watched the rise of Nazism with concern, did not publicly condemn them. He did, however, speak out in favour of Jewish artists; and his own work was eventually banned by the Nazis in 1943.
Apart from Siddartha, his other best known works are Steppenwolf, published in 1927, and The Glass Bead Game, published in Switzerland in 1943, and for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. Siddartha was not published in English until 1951, and only became popular in the questioning atmosphere of the 1960s, when all authority, religious and secular, was under the microsope.
Hesse died in his sleep of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 85, having suffered unknowingly with leukaemia for six years. His last 15 years had been spent in painting, essay writing and letter writing. Of his own journey he wrote: ‘One never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect, the whole world looks like home for a time.’