Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Prodigy (Hermann Hesse)

I love Hermann Hesse. He’s written some amazing books. The Glass Bead Game, Sidhartha and Steppenwolf are all among my favourites. So it was with joy and anticipation that I picked up The Prodigy (also called Beneath the Wheel).
The Prodigy is one of Hesse’s early efforts, and it’s a bit different. I think as a finished novel, it’s actually quite weak, but it is an interesting read because you can see the seeds of Hesse’s mental development, and in the second half particularly some of the writing is quite wonderful. Hermann Hesse is famous for crisp writing; his novels are almost fabalistic in their abstraction from every day life. His writing is alway simple, alway concise, and the novel-world tends to be a minimal, essential construction of reality. The Prodigy, well... it isn’t like that. The world is recognisably just the past. And although it never really approaches ‘grittiness’, it puts a dulling filter on life – things seem drab, dreary and imbued with a kind of stale, sepia-tone melancholy. The plot is very simple. A gifted boy called Hans works hard and gets into a demanding school. He struggles to keep pace with the academic and abstruse work he is given. Over time his spirit is broken by this string of zestless esoterica, and his once-eager mind starves on a diet that is so unconnected to the rawness and vitality of real life. It’s a powerful message; an ‘indictment of a conventional education’ according to the blurb on the back of the copy I read. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that Hesse created a caricature version of the real world, and exaggerates how beastly it all is. I agree that learning Latin and Greek in order to pour over the texts of Homer line by line sounds epically dull, especially on a hot summers day. Whilst real education isn’t anything like that today, perhaps it was back when Hesse was writing. But even so, is it so terrible? Sure, I think children could benefit more from learning other things, but Hans has specifically chosen to learn this kind of content. He felt pressured, but actually this is mild ‘pressure’ compared to the rest of the stuff ‘real’ life throws at you. All in all, Hesse’s critique feels a bit wet. Children should learn things that make them connected rather than disconnected with the natural world. However, wanting something and then not getting it, or wanting something then realising it’s the wrong thing, are pretty fundamental parts of life. On education The ending annoyed me too. Hans’ death was narratively inevitable as the only way to effectively represent how utterly the school system had failed him. I accept that the novel isn’t literally trying to say that people are at risk of death from a bad education – because in by far the majority of cases they’re not – but perhaps they are at risk of their spirit ‘dying’, or some other metaphorical expression of death. The annoying part is that Hesse completely fails to talk about what schools give their pupils. In general, I think learning is inherently good and enriching. Even if the kid Hans wasn’t cut out for a conventional education, he still learnt skills and knowledge which would have had a beneficial effect on the texture and quality of his experience for the rest of his life. It’s a sacrifice, and, yes, he probably wanted to be outside snogging girls and jumping through mud. But education is supposed to be an investment. You sacrifice a worse time now, in order to have a set of better quality experiences for the rest of your life. On love Hesse comes alive when he starts describing Hans falling in love. It’s lovely writing. The description of Hans’ heart opening is a beautiful thing. I felt my confidence slightly betrayed though. The kid goes to school and has – all told – a terrible time. When he comes into the real world, he immediately finds some of the pleasures that there exist, including the sweetness of first love. It doesn’t last, of course. But I really thought the book was intending to show how real life is a far better teacher than a school. The book would then have been twice as long, and ten times as good. Instead, the child loses his love, gets drunk and then quickly dies. “When a tree is polled, it will sprout new shoots nearer its roots. A soul that is ruined in the bud will frequently return to the springtime of its beginnings and its promise-filled childhood, as though it could discover new hopes there and retie the broken threads of life. The shoots grow rapidly and eagerly, but it is only a sham life that will never be a genuine tree.” Should you read this? Should you read this? I haven’t read everything else by Hesse, but I have read a fair bit. So I think I could take an odds-on gamble that this is below his average output in terms of quality. That being the case, you’re better off picking a random other Hesse and seeing what happens. I guess that seems like I’m answering ‘No’ to the question – and perhaps I am – but only because I’m concerned about best using your time, not because it isn’t a good read. I enjoyed it.


  1. I read this book recently and absolutely agree this is not Hesse's strongest book at all.

  2. If you want a real appreciation of Hesse learn about his life and read his books in German. The quotes I've read from the English translation of this book sound weak in comparison.
    I disagree with you about the education thing. This was not just a bad education, Hans was forced into academia with insanely stressful workloads due to the bourgeois greed and ambition of his father. The kid had just barely reached adolescence and was being crammed full of Latin, Hebrew, various Greek dialects, theology, mathematics, and difficult classic literature without ever once being allowed to consider what path he wants to follow. He had no freedom. It's a story about how the thoughtlessness and selfishness of parents and teachers can throw gifted youths "unters Rad" - under the wheel (ruining them/causing their degeneration).

    I agree that all people should receive a general education, at least to the point where they are capable of pursuing their desired path. The kind of pressure that Hans experienced just as a kid is enough to cause anyone (who has no particular inclination towards such things) to have a mental breakdown. By the way, Hans didn't receive a "conventional education," the kids he left behind in the Lateinschule did. Personally, judging from your writing and views on Hans' education, you sound much like the scholars that brought about Hans' ruin. I think you need to inspect the relationship between youth and elders. It's not simply about a high-pressure education, but the total lack of concern or recognition for the kid and his point of view.

    I'd like to add that this book is a milestone and herald of a very much related plot in Narziß und Goldmund.

    I'm sorry, I get irritated when people don't know what they're talking about. I mean why do people love to let everyone know what they're reading and their views on certain literature? Why can't people just read and enjoy a book without having to let everyone know and present themselves as some sort of cultured scholars?