Hermann Hesse picks on the reader in The Glass Bead Game. He finds himself writing of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht, trying to translate to the reader Knecht’s struggles, which seem so pleasantly confronted. The tribulations Knecht endures stir a sense of envy in the reader for the person reading this book likely handles his personal quarrels with much less intelligent resolve and with much less learned patience. But Knecht didn’t have to learn as much as most people do anyway, because after all he was a natural member of the Order of Castalia and so this man was destined to be peculiar.
In his foreword, Theodore Ziolkowski tries to translate what famous author and 1929 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann considered to be the parody of The Glass Bead Game, and having skimmed over the entire foreword prior to reading the novel, I am glad to find my reaction similar to that of Mann’s. Ziolkowski writes, “It is easy, too easy, to be sober and grave.” He says this like he is in agreement with Mann’s feelings and the foreword, from what I could gather, is really a pro-Mann and pro-Hesse writing, and it serves the start of the novel very nicely.
The book might confuse many readers because it is long and what some might consider overwrought. But, for those who consider it overworked, with this foreword the reader receives confirmation that his ideas of the text aren’t far-fetched or an insult to Hesse, but rather they’re in line with the thoughts of some great writers and most likely Hesse himself.
The determination that exudes from the young Knecht is most impressive as we find him being led along by the preceding Magister Ludi. Hesse writes, “Something was in the wind; he sensed it; but now it was far less a source of joy than it had been.” This sentence is in reference to the Magister’s feelings toward the young Knecht, who is seen by the Magister as being a young version of himself. And it is because of this that Knecht takes his part in a long line of Castalians. Knecht, as I’ve said, was born into the lot, losing his parents at a young age and displaying the tremendous gifts of the secluded sect.
Those in Castalia see things differently and react to situations much differently, but they still display normal human emotion, only in seclusion much like monks do. But all different vocations have their set of rules, their sets of personalities. Most of the people involved with the vocation have heard a calling to it and those who find themselves unfortunately a part of something to which they have not been called are left with nothing but feelings of torture which will expel them out of their thought-to-be calling.
The teacher/sage-pupil relationship is at the heart of The Glass Bead Game. Knecht, while taking his place in the Castalian lineage, witnessed the death of his mentor, the preceding Magister Ludi. He was given the honor of speaking at the Magister’s funeral. Hesse writes this of the occasion: “(Knecht) spoke only of the grace of such an old age and death, of the immortal beauty of the spirit which had been revealed through (The Magister Ludi) to those who had shared his last days.” Clearly Knecht looked lovingly upon the Magister and in many ways modeled his life after him, but I won’t go as far as to say that Knecht viewed the Magister as his savior. No, Knecht was really too bright to put something so simply because Knecht took what was necessary from every given situation; he was a genius concerning life, but even the genius of life had to endure his share of temptations.
Though, even when a man of intelligence and learned grace embarks upon the temptations which life has thrown his way, he does so with a personal strength and tremendous concentration which only those living in the present can exude. Knecht was a light house displaying brightness to all those who came near him both in his lifetime and then following his lifetime through his writings and the many stories of him that would emerge.
In The Glass Bead Game, Hesse takes us through Knecht’s whole life but only stops to describe in detail certain periods and, if we’re lucky, certain conversations in which Knecht had engaged. At the end of “The Legend” chapter, Knecht is with his new pupil Tito after having left Castalia for a life out in the world. They awake one morning and Knecht finds Tito outside near a lake. Hesse writes, “Knecht gave him a friendly nod.” This nod says much of Knecht, justifying the great descriptions that Hesse has given us of the man, “the legend.”
Hesse has a way of doing that in his stories, like all great writers do: justifying his descriptions by giving us gestures performed by the characters which serve as selling points to the reader. I’ve not come across a writer I like more than Hermann Hesse for that very reason; his characters are always thorough and only unrealistic to those not willing to dream along with Hesse himself.
The Glass Bead Game is one of my favorite novels and it might become one of yours too, but patience is required. I’m glad I read it.