Der Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf) by Hermann Hesse
Published in 1927; first published in English in 1929
Basil Creighton Translation
“This book contains the records left us by a man whom, according to the expression he often used himself, we called the Steppenwolf.”
Metaphysical and internal speculation abound in a tale of struggle between man and metaphorical wolf. Written by German author Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf is a tour-de-force of poetic prose, hallucinatory description, and internal conflict that speaks to any who feels at odds with the world and society in which they live. Following a mysterious man who refers to himself as the Steppenwolf, the story twists and turns into the fantastic, forcing the reader to wonder what is real and what is in the man’s mind.
Harry Haller calls himself the “Steppenwolf”, a wolf of the steppes that lives a lonely existence. He comes to rent rooms for nine or ten months and attracts the interest of the landlady and her nephew. He is a middle-aged man with a disquieting presence who is still charming despite his quirks. This is all explained in the book’s preface, written by the nephew who gives this description. This section also adds context to the remainder of the book which is told through a manuscript Haller wrote and left behind when he vacated his rooms.
Harry Haller’s record is written heavily in metaphor and poetic description. The language used is an art in itself as he describes his discontent with the bourgeois and status quo of the age. He despises the lukewarm existence of the middle class and finds solace in the classic writers and composers of Western society. He obtains a pamphlet, called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf”, which seems to describe his exact situation, the dichotomy he believes lives within him of wolf and man, and the fact that he is wrong to believe so. It reads like a manifesto and dense criticism of the bourgeois before returning to Harry’s manuscript.
While being dragged along in the despair of his condition, Harry stumbles upon a young, beautiful woman, named Hermine, who reinvigorates him and commands him into taking advantage of the fact he is alive. She gives him a purpose and a goal: learn to dance and fall in love with her under her conditions. The two share dissatisfaction with the world, albeit through different lenses, and seek a way to find some sort of earthly peace with it. As the story goes on, Haller enters new social circles, is enticed by physical pleasure, and eventually comes to hallucinate multiple scenarios about all of the women he loved in his life, alternate selves, and the immortal composers he so idolizes.
The book is made up of long, block paragraphs that can be intimidating, but somehow run smoothly and allow the reader to get caught up in their currents rather than be swept away. Since Haller is so heavily invested in the classics, there are a multitude of references to both Western and Eastern minds and works that come up again and again due to their importance to the plot of the story. The narrative splits a couple of times, changing from the preface to the manuscript and Treatise on the Steppenwolf, but it is also interrupted by two poems Haller that reflect on his experience of transformation.
While most of the book is rather straightforward in its narrative, a turn toward the fantastical does come near the end of the book that is transitioned into in such a way that it is surprising, yet natural. Hesse’s writing is wonderfully on display in his descriptions, transforming his character’s melancholy disposition into one of hope and re-invigoration. Haller is lonely, he is lost, and feels at odds with the world around him, but in meeting another soul like his, he begins, if not a recovery, than an understanding with the world around him. The reader is left to question what in the manuscript is real and what is not, but that isn’t the point. This is a journey of a man struggling with himself and the forces he perceives to be threatening; whether woman, man, wolf, or multitude of other personalities, I think we can all take something from this truly impressive novel.
Verdict: 4 poetic hallucinations out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of the word “bourgeois” and its derivatives, fans of metaphor, those who enjoy stories within stories, fans of well-written literature, and anyone who has felt at odds with the society they live in.
Not recommended for: Children, the easily confused, the overly literal, people who dislike metaphor, those who dislike the word “bourgeois” and its derivatives, or those who think this is about an actual wolf-man.