Friday, November 05, 2010

the last book I read

Demian by Hermann Hesse.

Emil Sinclair has the usual schoolboy preoccupations - getting his lunch money nicked by Teutonic Gripper Stebson-alike Franz Kromer, fallings-out with his parents, some of those icky teenage feelings, you know, down there, plus a good dose of existential angst, of course.

So when he meets charismatic fellow schoolboy Max Demian the stage is set for a bit of master/disciple hero-worshipping action, especially as Max kicks off their relationship by "having a word" with Franz Kromer. He also gets Emil to question some things he had previously thought to be sacrosanct, like the authority and infallibility of his parents, and the Bible stories he learns at school. Max is an enigmatic type who lives with his equally enigmatic mother, and drifts in and out of Emil's life over the course of the next few years, usually at moments of existential crisis.

No prizes for reading between the lines of Emil's feverish worshipping of Max, complete with much experimental artwork being produced depicting Demian in various heroic poses, and much arch talk of struggling with (and yielding to) one's impure desires. Clearly you couldn't have hot man-on-man action in a novel published in 1919, not even a quick cathartic handjob, but the subtext is clear enough. Or at least it seems to be at first glance, but then you start to wonder: does Demian really exist? As the book goes on there's more and more introspective self-realisation and analysis, including a swerve into some mystical Gnosticism and worshipping of the god Abraxas (of which more later). Eventually World War I breaks out and Sinclair and Demian are drafted (separately) into the German army, sharing a climactic (and seemingly valedictory) scene after Sinclair is injured by mortar fire which again throws some doubt on how literally all this is meant to be taken.

Clearly what we have here is a classic Bildungsroman, wherein a youg boy emerges from the cosy cocoon of childhood and innocence and struggles to get to grips with a world largely indifferent to his existence, and tries to tackle the Big Questions like: why are we here? what does it all mean? what about those feelings I'm having, you know, down there? The same sort of thing, in other words, as a whole catalogue of other novels including The Levels and The Catcher In The Rye, but dealt with here with much more of a mystical-philosophical flourish. It's shorter and (for all the Abraxas business) less weird and hallucinatory than the only other Hesse novel I've read, Steppenwolf. And for all that (as with pretty much all coming-of-age novels) the central protagonist could do with a bit of a slap from time to time, it's easy enough to read and well worth a look, as it throws a few interesting ideas around, even if a lot of them are well-steeped in quasi-Buddhist mystical bollocks, for want of a better word.

A bit of a trans-generic artistic linkup for you now - the reason the name Abraxas was familiar to me is that it's the title of psychedelic Latino-jazz-rock combo Santana's second album, released in 1970 and one of the signature albums I remember from my childhood (fuller list here). I was always intrigued by the quotation that appeared below the track listing and the list of musical credits:
We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas....
This is from Demian, and I'd forgotten about it until the penny dropped while I was reading the book: spooky (or not, take your pick). Interestingly the W.J. Strachan translation in my 1972(ish) second-hand Panther paperback reads slightly differently:
I stood before her and the nervous strain made my blood run cold. I questioned the picture, accused it, caressed it, prayed to it, called it mother, sweetheart, whore and strumpet, I called it Abraxas.
Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, so chalk another one up for that list as well.

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