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By Hesse, Hermann
Translated by Hilda Rosner
New York: The Noonday Press – Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969
ISBN # 0-486-28450-6
118 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2013

The narrator has been on a journey with the League. It is sometime after WWI. The narrator is forgetful, but he has vivid memories of his experience. Yet he can’t reveal anything about “The League” which, of course, he has revealed to us on page 2. But he would rather die than reveal any of the details .

Count Keyserling’s book, plus others have been written about “the League” but none of those people who published books were part of the League nor of this journey to the East.

There are secret goals of the League, but each member could also have his own goals and those he or she could reveal. The narrator’s aim was to see Princess Fatima and win her love. They are not the only group in the League; there are others and they even meet up with some along their journey.

What he does reveal of the journey is filled with mysticism, magic and information about the sect within the League’s doing and decisions.

The narrator himself was a musician and storyteller. Also central to the story is the servant, Leo, a simple laborer. He sought the secret of communication with animals and especially dogs. Leo was nearly everyone’s favorite on the journey.

The goal was not really the “East” as the title suggests:

“. . . it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times.”

He’s aware that much of what he tells in the novel is imagined.

“There were amongst us many artists, painters, musicians and poets. Ardent Klingson was there and restless Hugo Wolf, taciturn Lausher, vivacious Brentano – but however animated and loveable the personalities of these artists were, yet without exception their imaginary characters were more animated, more beautiful, happier and certainly finer and more real than the poets and creators themselves.”

Later we read:

“After we had border crossed half Europe and a portion of the Middle Ages, we camped . . .”

Thus we learn the journey is not only in space, but also in time.

Leo, the servant leaves and everything changes and falls apart. The narrator begins to doubt he can really tell the tale of their journey. What is it about, what is the central meaning or force? He no longer knows and thus he doesn’t think he can tell the tale. He resolves to begin the story anew until he “gets” it.

“I will be mindful of the first principle of our great period, never to rely on and let myself be disconcerted by reason, always to know that faith is stronger than so-called reality.”

After the collapse of his part in the journey to the East he returns home and meets with Lukas, an old friend and editor. Lukas has heard of the League and dismissed its importance. He called it “The Children’s Crusade.” Given that is the subtitle of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel of the firebombing of Dresden, and given that Vonnegut definitely knows and is close to Hesse’s writing, it makes me wonder if this novel is the influence on Vonnegut for that subtitle.

The narrator needs to make sense of what happened. Lukas writes off his need by telling him many prophets and messianic hopes came to the fore after the war, and he should understand his urges in relation to this phenomenon of the time.

Lukas himself had a good deal of forgetfulness in relation to his experience in the war. Nonetheless, eventually, Lukas wrote his book, so there is hope for him too. Lukas gives him a lead: it turns out if Leo were a last name, not first, there may be someone with that unusual last name in the phone book, and there is, Andreas Leo. The narrator hurries there and spies on him for some time, trying to get a look at him, and it is “his” Leo, so he confronts him.

Leo seems to have no idea who the narrator is and denies any information about the League, nonetheless, the troubled narrator writes Leo a long and impassioned letter about his experience and Leo relents. He is not the innocent he had pretended and takes the narrator to the High Throne of the League.

From here on out the novel is extremely reminiscent of PART of Kafka’s The Trial, especially, but has much of the mystery of what’s happenind that one gets in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and even of The Castle, but only partly as I will discuss below.

They give H.H. (as they call him – another strong link to Kafka’s, Joseph K) a “trial” about his behavior is held, and he is told:

“The self-accuser is herewith empowered to reveal publically every law and secret of the League’s archives. Moreover, the whole of the League’s archives are placed at his disposal for his work.”

Leo, it turns out is President of the League, and he personally forgives H.H., however, he points out that the sins he has admitted are not what’s serious at all. Rather:

“Brother H. was led to despair in his test, and despair in the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfill their requirements . . .”

It is here that Hesse goes far beyond Kafka. Joseph K never really understands what has happened, and he can’t really go forward. Not so H.H. who begins his own rehabilitation and path back toward the League. He actually succeeds, but only at the first level of his rehabilitation, and that has to await a later novel (which perhaps Siddhartha really is).

This was a very strange, otherworldly and fascinating novel. I’m not sure what to really make of it, perhaps it will take some time for it to leaven within my head. If so, I’ll just come back and add to these notes later on.

Bob Corbett


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