Hesse’s romantic and sinister tale of boarding school life

Merciless cramming according to an obsolete curriculum… constant fighting and bullying at a boys’ boarding school… pressure from peers and pressure from parents… vast social differences and social mobility through achievement… ardent friendship and careless betrayal… overpowering desire and fear of falling in love for the first time…

Sounds familiar? It’s not from one of the academic works on adolescence at the Newsam Library, or one of the contemporary novels for young people in our collection of children’s fiction: it is a rather ancient novel from our Education in Literature Collection. Hermann Hesse published this early masterpiece in 1906. I shall read from it on World Book Night on 23 April.

The coming-of-age story Unterm Rad (Under the Wheels) has been translated as The Prodigy. Hans Giebenrath is not really a prodigy, just a gifted and ambitious boy, pushed ever harder to perform, by father, teachers and pastors in unison. In fact, Hans thoroughly enjoys outdoor sports, relishes nature around his quaint old hometown, and excels at constructing things; yet, gradually all pleasures are wrestled from him, and his life feels drained of life by fifteen.

Maulbronn Monastery, site of the college in the book. Photograph by Harro52 from Wikipedia.

Maulbronn Monastery, site of the college in the book. Photograph by Harro52 from Wikipedia.

The college is located in a mediaeval monastery, which offers Hesse a marvellous backdrop for the central part of his plot, as romantic as it is sinister. In portraying Hans and his best friend Hermann – the model child and the rebel, the hardworking student and the high-flying poet – Hesse worked through his his experience at the same boarding school in Maulbronn, which was supposed to prepare him for a career in the established Protestant church. He did not last long.

Hesse’s story-telling is still chronological and realistic here, his language sustained and accomplished, thoroughly nineteenth-century. The boys’ given names, from August to Emil, have fallen out of fashion now, and the habitual address with their family names seems even more bemusing. Hermann’s revelation: “I say, I have a sweetheart” rings in your ears weeks after, for the language as much as for the message. Yet the world of the past which Hesse conjures up before your eyes can be adequately described in the terms that I used in the first paragraph: the parallels are astonishing.

In German-speaking countries, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) is still a cult author over half a century after his passing. He is regularly honoured as a philosopher as well as a novelist, although he expressed his concepts by way of fiction rather than essays; he is also famous as a lyrical poet and expressionist painter. There is an idea that you should reread his novels, which you would know from your youth, at different stages of your life. As I have just experienced once again, this idea is a good one.

Calw in the Black Forest, the model for the town in the book. Photograph by Softeis from Wikipedia.

Calw in the Black Forest, the model for the town in the book. Photograph by Softeis from Wikipedia.

You are invited to mark World Book Night with a celebration of reading in the UCL IOE library on 23 April 2015.

From 17:00-18:00: Celebrating Reading Aloud and the Joys of Listening to Others Read in the Library Teaching Room.

For more information, please contact Sally Perry at s.perry@ioe.ac.uk



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