Weekend Reading: Hermann Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” & Gene Wolfe’s “Interlibrary Loan”

You know I love light weekend reading! I did not forget its importance during a week of praising Ovid’s wife and ambivalence toward The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

No, but really… I could not write about light reading after my experience last weekend! I am still recovering from an attempt to reread the Nobel Prize-winning Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, or Magister Ludi.

Here’s the 1970 edition.

I recently read that The Glass Bead Game is Hesse’s masterpiece. Alas, it is as pompous as I’d vaguely remembered. Weighted down by clunky mysticism and hundreds of pages of stilted explication of a Glass Bead Game that dominates the future culture of a monkish elite, it is not the gem of Hesse’s oeuvre–at least not in English translation.

Another tacky cover!

During the counterculture, Hesse’s popularity in translation was heightened by his portraits of mystical antiheroes who dropped out to find meaning in life. (I mean, Meaning in Life.) We carried around tacky paperbacks with cover illustrations of people wearing funny hats or having orgies. Steppenwolf was my favorite, though I have not returned to it–Why spoil a memory? I even went twice to the movie, starring Max von Sydow.

So if you must read Hesse, save Magister Ludi for last. I read it solemnly as a starry-eyed youth, but it was not my favorite. A few years ago, I did reread Demian, and moderately enjoyed it. It would be a better starting point for Hesse, I suspect.

If you are a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, with a jot of SF, Gene Wolfe’s Interlibrary Loan is for you. It is one of my favorite novels of the year, and I enjoyed it so much that I hugged it at one point. Brilliant! Awesome! And then the ending was so abrupt I had to read it twice, and was still disappointed. But it was his last book, posthumously-published, and the editors could hardly call on him to edit from the grave.

Gene Wolfe, who died in 2019, is best known for the award-winning literary science fiction quartet, The Book of the New Sun. (The New Yorker compared it to Ulysses.) Interlibrary Loan is completely different, short, snappy, and satiric.

The premise is so much fun. In the future, an author’s consciousness can be uploaded as a “reclone” to a book. They walk, talk, eat, feel, look human, but are not deemed human. Patrons can check them out of the library and talk to them, even do research. The author-hero, Ern A. Smithe, a reclone in danger of incineration for being not checked out enough, is pleased to be borrowed on interlibrary loan, along with a witty cookbook writer and a flirty romance writer. But the situation proves problematic: his patron, Adah Fevre, the bedridden psychotic wife of a missing professor, wants him to find her husband, and gets out of bed only long enough to accompany Ern to a mysterious island where her husband does research. What a wild trip that is! You feel that Ern is Dashiell Hammett, recloned with Jules Verne, George MacDonald, and H. Rider Haggard.

This book is excellent for 150 pages or so, and reasonably good until the very end. Flawed but fun. There is an earlier book in this duo, The Borrowed Man, which I hope to read very soon.

Happy Weekend!

4 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Hermann Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” & Gene Wolfe’s “Interlibrary Loan””

  1. “Patrons can check them out of the library and talk to them, even do research.”
    What are the fines for late return or failing to return a person?

  2. I think you have to be 18 to 20 to make the effort to read Hesse. I read all his well-known books back then (1970s) but can’t imagine making the effort now.

    1. It’s not so much the effort as the reverential philosophizing in Glass Bead Game! But aren’t we glad his philosophy fit our needs back in our old Utopia/Dystopia?

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