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Zurich show observes cult author’s 125th birthday

By Hanns Neuerbourg, The Associated Press
Friday June 28, 2002

ZURICH Switzerland — The novel, purportedly written by a man named Emil Sinclair, immediately won a literary award when it was published in 1919. But the winner of the prize, reserved for first works, returned it since he was no newcomer to the literary scene. 

Only in the mid-1920s did the author of the self-exploring “Demian” reveal his true identity: Hermann Hesse. Half a century later, Hesse’s books became cult favorites for millions worldwide, above all young readers. 

Now, on the 125th anniversary of his birth, the life and work of Hesse, one of the most widely read German-speaking novelists and poets, are themes for numerous shows, conferences and other events throughout the world. 

Competing for special attention are Calw, the picturesque German Black Forest town where he was born July 2, 1877, and Zurich, in his adopted homeland, Switzerland, where all of his Nobel Prize-winning prose was written. 

The Zurich exhibition at the Swiss National Museum claims to be the largest presentation. Its title, “Hellish Journey Through Myself,” is excerpted from a resume Hesse wrote in 1924. It points to decades of struggle to overcome personal crises. 

On view are first editions of his books as well as paintings, texts, letters and memorabilia. The focus is on “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” two key novels by the prolific writer, whose works have been translated into almost 60 languages. 

Two revolvers stuck to the wall of one room recall Hesse’s flirtation with suicide, which began when he was a teen-ager. He bought his first handgun at age 15 in a mental clinic where his austerely Pietist parents had put their rebellious son after he escaped from a Protestant seminary. Next to the arms is a letter in which he accuses his father of having robbed him of “the zest of life.” In the letter, he addresses his father as Herr Hesse — Mr. Hesse. 

By then, he had already long decided that he wanted to “become a poet or nothing at all,” as he would remember in his resume. 

His first novel, “Peter Camenzind,” a back-to-nature call in response to growing industrialization published when he was 27, was already a success — as was the subsequent “Demian.” But through most of his career, he was intermittently haunted by fits of doubt and desperation. Two unhappy marriages contributed to his problems. 

Exhibits describe how he sought relief by psychotherapy in about 70 analytical sessions, mostly with a disciple of C.G. Jung, the early Swiss adherent of Sigmund Freud. The theories of Freud and Jung strongly affected Hesse’s works, generally judged to be autobiographical. 

“He makes his way through this hellish tunnel, ... writes about his crisis and thus copes with it at the same time,” biographer Eva Zimmermann writes in a 250-page textbook accompanying the show. Referring to a dreams diary his therapist once made him write, she points to Hesse’s hidden hopes for fame, his sexual inhibitions, his extreme thriftiness and other insights into his psyche. 

For almost a year, one of his worst crises blocked completion of “Siddhartha,” based on the early life of Buddha and reflecting Hesse’s studies of Indian and Chinese philosophy. It was only with “Steppenwolf,” his novel about a romantic antiestablishment loner, that Hesse found relative peace, according to Zimmermann. 

The publication of “Steppenwolf,” on his 50th birthday, can be considered as a symbolic end of the hellish journey, Zimmermann writes. Hesse has reached the highest degree of self-awareness and self-discovery possible to him.