Monday, July 1, 2013

Classic Lit: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Publisher: Bantam
Translator: Jack Zipes
Date: 1995
Format: paperback
Source: OU Honors College
Read: as part of an Honors College informal reading group/to be a completist
Pages: 263
Reading time: about three months, or entirely too long

From the back cover: To read Hermann Hesse's fairy tales is to enter a fabulous world of dreams and visions, philosophy and passion. This landmark collection contains twenty-two of Hesse's finest stories in this genre, most translated into English here for the first time. Full of visionaries and seekers, princesses and wandering poets, his fairy tales speak to the place in our psyche that inspires us with deep spiritual longing; that compels us to leave home, and inevitably to return; and that harbors the greatest joys and most devastating wounds of our heart.

My review: I was so, so excited to get this book - it's fairy tales, who wouldn't be? - and so, so disappointed once I started reading it. For one thing, they didn't much resemble fairy tales to me (though this could be at least partly because I'm more used to folkloric rather than "literary" fairy tales). The tales have the simple, blocky style of writing that characterizes such stories, but whereas I usually find such a style charming,  Hesse's manner of writing just irritated me. It was very much "THIS happened, then THIS," a lot of telling readers about the emotions and experiences of the characters rather than actually demonstrating them. I was often bored by the sequence of events, annoyed by Hesse's inclusion of vague philosophical ramblings significant only to himself.

The main thing I learned from this spring semester's Hesse reading group (we also read Narcissus and Goldmund and a selection of his poems) is how much I dislike Hesse's style and subjects. His fairy tales largely rehash the same themes as his other writings: the uniqueness in mind of the artist, how artists should separate their lives/work from the world, childhood innocence, and some vague oedipal thing about mothers. There's almost always some vague oedipal thing about mothers, and his constant bringing up of it is what probably most got on my nerves. Overall, Hesse came off as whiny to me, complaining about how great artists (with some obvious references to himself) are different from everyone else, more in tune with the natural world around them rather than with society.

Granted, I did not dislike every story in this collection. The stories about environmentalism and the dangers of modernism, such as "The City" and "Faldum," appealed somewhat to me. I loved the surrealism of "A Dream Sequence." My two favorites were probably "If the War Continues" and "The European," blatant criticisms of WWI that contained dystopian and allegorical elements, respectively. While overall I was irritated by Hesse's style and content, there were a few gems among this collection that I found quite worthwhile to read.

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