Hermann Hesse’s “Gertrude”

The graphic designer Milton Glaser’s psychedelic covers for Noonday Press inspired a generation of hippies and freaks to read Hermann Hesse. And the moody Nobel Prize winner’s philosophical novels reflected the changing values of the counterculture. College students who decorated their dorm rooms with Milton Glaser’s Bob Dylan poster were enthralled by Hesse’s Steppenwolf. “MAGIC THEATER. NOT FOR EVERYBODY.”

And then there was the movie with Max von Sydow.

But at a certain point we outgrew Hesse.

Or so I assumed until I picked up an ex-library copy of Gertrude for $1, with Milton Glaser’ pop art cover.

I loved parts of Gertrude.

This short bildungsroman is simple, spare, and touching. Hilda Rosner’s translation is a gem, every sentence perfectly constructed. The narrator, Kuhn, a composer, relates his history and describes the fluctuation of his moods. He muses on philosophy and theosophy as he tries to make sense of the world.

Crippled in a sledding accident while trying to impress a young woman, he traces his coming of age through his love of music.  He does not regret the accident.  Afterwards he focuses on his music and has an epiphany in the woods:  inspired by nature, he composes his first professional song.   His music teachers grudgingly admit he has talent but tell him he won’t make it as a violinist.   They are wrong.  He breaks his way into the professional musicians’ community, due to his friendship with a successful singer, Muoth.

Are musicians happy? Kuhn enjoys being second violin in an orchestra, and his songs  become well-known. But his relationships with women are difficult, and his moods are often dark. There are also triangles within triangles: Muoth comes between Kuhn and Gertrude, an amateur singer who sings parts of the opera Kuhn is composing.  Kuhn cannot bear to see Gertrude after that.

How Kuhn comes to terms with and moves beyond youth is at the center of this novel. And as I read it, I remembered how much I once loved Hesse.

A great book? No. But worth reading.

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