The text is stuffed with exclamation marks which, as the poet WH Auden once remarked, is like laughing at your own jokes and the metaphors on occasion are hobbled by their own unrepentant banality as in these lines describing Hesse starting to write in Tübingen, “And so the bird began to break its way out of the eggshell. To put it another way: Hesse started to swim.”
Hesse will always find his readers, biographers notwithstanding, and in his rejection of the boundary walls of his suspicion, his attentiveness to the environment and his scepticism around the cult of the author may be due something of a revival. And not just in the bedsit.
This is a German biography, and the reader should be prepared for some national conventions of treatment. There is nothing resembling an anecdote from beginning to end. Decker has not seen it as his task to interview anyone who might have known Hesse, apart from one son and one daughter — and no use is made of these interviews... Hesse was capable of writing very badly himself, but he deserves much better than this. He was an interesting figure who, through his refusal to acknowledge his limitations or the times he lived in, brought something entirely new to the novel. I’d like to read a good biography of him.
Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted...his is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer.
Decker’s wonderfully rich, insightful biography is a welcome reminder of Hesse’s painfully honest exploration of selfhood and is destined to become the standard work on this difficult, reclusive and often self-destructive writer who “concealed himself within his contradictions”.