Friday, 23 October 2009

Narziss and Goldmund: Hermann Hesse

Considered at the time to be Hesse's greatest work, this poetic novel continues the Jungian search for harmony within the self that underpins much of his work and is most prominent in the two novels which preceded 'Narziss and Goldmund' - 'Steppenwolf' and 'Siddhartha'.
The narrative follows the life of Goldmund who arrives at a secluded medieval monastery deep in the forests as a fresh faced, dreamy young boy. He is quickly taken under the wing of Narziss a highly talented scholar and teacher barely older than the new arrival. The unlikely pairing of the disciplined aesthetic and ultra-logical Narziss and the romantic, easily distracted Goldmund provides a metaphor for Hesse's take on Jung's ideas of needing to balance the masculine and feminine halves of the individual soul. Goldmund eventually departs the cloisters to search for a mother he can hardly remember but whose image drives him on through the trials and tribulations of life in the outside world. For almost two hundred pages, once he has taken leave of the monastic life, Goldmund is the sole focus of the narrative with Narziss encroaching more as an inspiration and a sense of absence than anything. In a way, then, Goldmund's journey is a search for his lost mother figure and it is a long, slow return to the most authoritative father figure in his life - Narziss.
Hesse's imagery throughout is masterful: his understanding of the way that thwarted creative instincts must find an outlet and expression was learnt first-hand. As with all his work, there is much of Hesse's own life, in here. He himself was pushed into religious pursuits by his parents only to rebel and set himself up as a poet and then novelist. The horrors of the First World War, against which he wrote prolifically before and during the conflict, probably lie behind his gruesome descriptions of Goldmund's experiences of death and despair in plague country. The Jungian subplot springs from the therapeutic restructuring Hesse underwent after several breakdowns and years of depressive interludes. By 1930, when this novel was first published, he appeared to have reconciled himself to the apparent contradictions within his own soul, thus 'Narziss and Goldmund' has a far more forgiving and acceptant tone than even 'Siddhartha'.
My one minor gripe is that the Penguin translation by Geoffrey Dunlop does not seem to allow Hesse's metaphorical talents to flow quite so well as modern versions of his works by translators such as Sherab Chodzin Kohn. But this is a trifling complaint as the imagery and the power of the narrative still transcend Dunlop's occasionally clumsy hand. A masterpiece.

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