Hermann Hesse is yet another of those authors I’ve never had much success with. Gave up on Steppenwolf, intimidated by the scale of The Glass Bead Game (not to mention his Nobel), and tempted – but not enough – by lesser-known titles such as Peter Camenzind and Strange News from Another Star. As for Siddhartha, well, a rationalist, sceptical soul like me knew it for a load of sentimental, soft-hearted spiritualism. (A presumption which had a purity all its own, untainted by evidence.) Now Penguin have gone and made me rethink my prejudice by issuing the book in their fine Modern Classics range. As with Robert Walser’s The Assistant, they’ve pulled out the promotional stops by wrapping the book in a vivid red sleeve, advertising a new introduction by the egregious Paulo Coelho (the Helen Steiner Rice de nos jours). This blocks about a third of the beautiful cover illustration by fashionable designer Julian House; but on the plus side, (a) it may attract people to the book who wouldn’t otherwise consider it (er, other than those swayed by a Penguin Modern Classic tag), and (b) the introduction is very short.
Siddhartha (1922) was published when Hesse was in his mid-40s, and might unkindly be considered the result of a mid-life crisis. In throwing out explicitly the biggest questions of all – how to live, the purpose of existence, the meaning of happiness – the book risks ridicule, which it courts doubly with its mystical eastern setting. Immediately the reader is thrown into a world of Brahmins and Oms and Govindas, and the cynical-minded have to struggle against making up their own jokes (referring to the glossary, for example, to find that Atman is akin to the soul, and not a superhero who travels by email).
In fact Siddhartha is not nearly so unworldly as it might first appear. Hesse’s eponymous character, the son of a Brahmin (holy man), has a pretty sceptical eye himself:
he would not become an ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd.
Siddhartha feels that “his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom, that they had already poured the sum total of their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.” This acknowledgement of the limitations of what I thought would be the solutions offered in the book is surprising and disarming, as is Hesse’s decision to make Siddhartha not a tiresomely virtuous seeker after truth, but a human with unattractive qualities (as when he shows contempt for others who don’t share his values).
The story follows Siddhartha as he struggles to make sense of his life, follows and rejects various spiritualist practices, embraces materialism and sexual indulgence, and moves toward epiphany and enlightenment. Against expectations, it’s a clear-eyed and plainly written account, without sentimentality. It’s a tribute to Hesse’s ability to embrace without embarrassment the spiritual aspects of the story, and at the same time avoid fortune-cookie philosophising, that each time I returned to this short volume I wanted to make the journey last as long as possible. It even made me feel relaxed and optimistic (though I did read it on holiday … then again holidays are usually stressful, so let that stand).
The question that then arises is how well Siddhartha straddles the line between literature and self-help volume. It’s invariably viewed to some extent as the latter these days, even though when Hesse wrote it eighty years ago, it’s likely that the person he was seeking to help was himself. I noticed in the bookshops recently that there’s another UK edition, published by Picador, with a very long introduction – at 70 pages, half the length of Siddhartha itself – covering much of Hesse’s life and the writing of the book, which I feel I would probably benefit from reading. (Coelho’s introduction here, surprise surprise, is mostly about himself.)
Those coming to Siddhartha for spiritual sustenance in fact probably will find content here to ponder (“Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment and fear in time? Were not all difficulties and evil in the world conquered as soon as one conquered time, as soon as one dispelled time?”). Furthermore, from a literary point of view it provides a fascinating display of a writer stretching his aims and entering unknown territory, and coming through the struggle on top, or at least with a sense of completeness. And what more enlightenment could one wish for than that?