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Friday, 7 October 2011

Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is a name that has cropped up many a time since I started this blog, while I was browsing through books that I could potentially review in the future. Specifically his books Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, two apparent classics of modern Europe. If I were to start his works, those would be the two most obvious titles to read, right? Instead I started with Beneath the Wheel, mainly because that was the book that turned up on my University reading list. Is it a good place to start? I think so. 

Beneath the Wheel follows an adolescent boy named Hans Giebernath, who is quite special compared to the rest of the population of the small German town he lives in. While the majority are only basically educated and happy to settle for apprenticeships at 14, he possesses a keen intelligence and a desire to do well. Because of this, he is entered into the world of academia, where his father and teachers from home hope that he will go on to become an academic or a priest, someone who will contribute greatly towards the state. We follow Hans as he goes through his first year away at school, eventually culminating in a nervous break-down as he tries and fails to reconcile his desire to succeed with his desire to become more like his friend, the outgoing poet Heilner. For me, it boiled down to a critique of competitive education systems and the limits that young people were subjected to if their education didn't succeed. Indeed, my favourite part of the book was the part that looked at how Hans coped with leaving the world of academia. While it's obvious from earlier chapters just how damaging the constant pressure of his school work and the high standards that he had inadvertently set for himself in his teachers' and father's eyes, it is also clear that he has no concept of a future for himself other than that of academia; the amount of special treatment that he has been given because of his intelligence has skewed his perspective, so that he regards the hard-working but otherwise unremarkable people of his home-town with arrogance and disdain. I thought that this focus on the way that he tries to cope with his new situation was pitch perfect, and at times extremely unflattering for the protagonist, despite how sympathetic he and his situation are to the reader. 
Regarding characters, since I've mentioned Hans already, considering that the plot is so inextricably bound up with his character, I think that the only other characters that warrant mentioning are Heilner, Herr Giebernath and Master Flaig. Heilner is Hans' classmate at the academy, and his only 'friend' throughout the course of the book. I wasn't all that fond of him, if I'm quite honest; that's not to say that he isn't a well-written character, and there are things that I like about him. What I like is that Heilner doesn't just learn things for the sake of learning them like the rest of the boys: he reads their Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts to experience the beauty of language, not to learn the grammar by rote until all life is sucked from the texts; that is something that I can respect. But overall, I just got the feeling that Heilner is not a very nice person. I mean, his relationship with Hans seems to be one where Heilner dictates absolutely everything; he constantly offloads his problems on to Hans, most of them based on his notion that a poet should be full of deep and melancholy thoughts, but when Hans tries to study in order to keep his grades up Heilner gets all moody about it. He can't seem to grasp the concept that not everyone will share his disregard for grades, and when you pair this one-sided relationship with his oddly wide streak of malice, it makes for discomforting reading at times. I can almost forgive Herr Giebernath after talking about Heilner, although he too has a share of the blame regarding Hans' downward spiral. Being a basically unremarkable man, Herr Giebernath wants nothing more than for his son to do well, putting extra pressure on Hans to succeed. By the time that Hans has had his nervous breakdown, Herr Giebernath has no idea what went wrong; he doesn't want to upset his son, but it becomes more and more obvious that he is severely disappointed and angry at what must seem a waste of time. I guess I can kind of sympathise with him, as he does honestly want his son to do well, but the lack of communication and attempts to understand him mean that he often acts in ways that are to Hans' detriment instead. Finally, regarding Master Flaig...well, he's kind of a tough character to understand. He seems to have Hans' best interests at heart, but he doesn't actually try and intervene when he thinks that Hans is being worked too hard. So I suppose that he's more likeable than the majority of the supporting cast, but only because he has at least a slight understanding of what is actually best for Hans, despite the fact that he almost never acts on his opinions. 
I think the only thing really left to discuss is the writing itself. It's gorgeous. I take my hat off to the translator, Michael Roloff, as he did a cracking job. Probably the most impressive thing is how evocative the language used is, especially when setting is being described. Just take a read of this part from the section where Hans is asked to help Master Flaig make cider: 
"This fragrance really was the best part of the year, for it is the very essence of ripeness and harvest. It is good to suck it into your lungs with winter so near since it makes you grateful and brings back a host of memories: of the gentle May rains, summer downpours, cool morning dew in autumn, tender spring sun, blazing hot summer afternoons, the whites and rose-red blossoms and the ripe red-brown glow of fruit trees before the harvest - everything beautiful and joyful that happens in the course of a year." 
To be honest with you, I don't think that I could really add anything to that; the writing speaks for itself.

Overall, this was a thoughtful, evocative read with complex characters and a tragic consideration of youth and potential wasted. 5/5

Next review: Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

Signing off,

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