…of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other […] Partly, but only partly, this may occur so frequently by reason of the fact that this book, written when I was fifty years old, and dealing, as it does with the problems of that age, often fell into the hands of very young readers.
Yeah, well – we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now. Steppenwolf was one of those books in the ’60s, post-Beat hip. There was even a band called themselves Steppenwolf after it, though their main claim to fame, the stodgy Born to be wild, as featured in zeitgeist movie Easy Rider, rather misses the point. The thing then was that what happens to the protagonist at the end of the book, in the Magic Theatre, is kinda trippy – psychedelic literature from Germany between the wars no less – and it still is. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that. I’ve been surprised this time around by its power.
Now, I’m not going to spend too much time even trying to explain what is going on in the book; not that I’m that sure about it anyway (though don’t let that put you off). You have the wolf and man, the dichotomy of animal flesh and human mind (and/or soul, or spirit), and there’s a critique of that dualist approach to psychology, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, whose testimony forms most of the book, is also a loner, a lone wolf existing in the arid steppes of bourgeois society, an intellectual whose asceticism has led to his painting himself into a corner where suicide seems a logical option. A smug, painlessly comfortable bust of Goethe, one of his heroes, contributes to his losing it at a dinner party, leading to a sequence of events that cause him to reconsider his life and priorities, key components of which are the process of learning to dance in preparation for a Grand Ball while enjoying the company of good-looking women, to embrace life and, in passing, ‘get’ jazz. The Ball reaches its climax in the corridors in the bowels of the Magic Theatre, where each door opens to a fresh world of experience.
Behind one door, for example, he is returned to his youth and the precious moments of first love where he’d faltered and is now blissfully allowed to act differently and change what he never gained. Behind another he partakes of the ‘Great Automobile Hunt’ – what now reads like an epic and bloody shoot-em-up game taking in brutal roadside ambush and general mayhem. That was one episode took me by surprise, that I had no recall of at all. Another was the appearance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“the most beloved and the most exalted picture that my inner life contained“) who gives Haller a hard time and then raps – yes RAPS:
Mozart laughed aloud when he saw my long face. He turned a somersault in the air for laughter’s sake and played trills with his heels. At the same time he shouted at me: ‘Hey, my young man, you are biting your tongue, man, with a gripe in your lung, man? You think of your readers, those carrion feeders, and all your typesetters, those wretched abettors, and sabre-whetters. You dragon, you make me laugh till I shake me and burst the stitches of my breeches. O heart of a gull, with printer’s ink dull, and soul-sorrow-full. A candle I’ll leave you, if that’ll relieve you. Betittled, betattled, spectacled and shackled, and pitifully snagged and by the tail wagged, and shilly and shally no more shall you dally. For the devil, I pray, will bear you away and slice you and spice you till that shall suffice you for your writings and rotten plagiarizings ill-gotten.’
When Harry complains about gallows humour Mozart tells him all humour is gallows humour. Mozart turns on the radio – “the last victorious weapon in the war of extermination against art” says Harry – for a bit of Handel:
At once, to my indescribable astonishment and horror, the devilish metal funnel spat out, without more ado, its mixture of bronchial slime and chewed rubber; the noise that possessors of gramophones and radio sets are prevailed upon to call music. And behind the slime and the croaking there was, sure enough, like an old master behind a layer of dirt, the noble outline of that divine music.
Mozart tells him, after explaining, among other things the penetration of radio to places the music has never reached before (and remember it’s 1920s audio he’s dealing with here):
Listen, then, you poor thing. Listen well. You have need of it. And now you hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by radio, is, all the same,in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life. When you listen to radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine.
Between the Ideal, populated by the Immortals, and … real life, no less. Don’t lose your awareness, but loosen up, laugh a bit about it all, is Wolfgang’s advice: “Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.” Harry’s trip doesn’t quite end here, but I will. Except to mention some interesting musings of Harry’s as he gets around to loving jazz. And to say that, You know those big lists of Great Books of the twentieth century or whatever other appropriate category? – well I reckon Hermann Hesse‘s Steppenwolf warrants a place on ’em and, despite all those to-be-read piles and lists, I’ll probably be returning there again soon.
The cover of the large, C-format, paperback edition of Rebecca Makkai‘s ambitious novel The borrower (Heinemann, 2011) that I read was artistically rendered to take on the typical wear and tear you find on the kind of well-read library book that it seeks to praise. I think it’s a shame that the idea hasn’t been continued with subsequent paperback editions; they lose something from it. I only discovered this neat deception when I looked to download the image for the purposes of this blog and when I pointed it out to other members of the Book Group I’m a member of it took them by surprise too. It was an interesting discussion, people taking different things to like about the book; some weren’t convinced by the librarian but liked the kid, and vice versa. But I jump ahead of myself.
OK – basic plot. Small town Children’s Library in Hannibal (not that Hannibal), Missouri. Children’s literature is cleverly referred to or inferred throughout, not least, of course, with the book’s title. 26-year old Children’s Librarian Lucy with a Russian parents back story that kicks in as the action progresses and 10-year old voracious book-lover Ian. Classic librarian’s dilemma: his mum complains about what he’s reading – “What Ian really needs right now are books with the breath of God in them.” Lucy is concerned about the influence of Pastor Bob and his anti-gay Glad Heart program (Ian showing all the signs, worries his mother) pushing delicate souls towards manly pursuits. Events transpire for them to go on a Thelma and Louise road trip, driving from Missouri to the Canadian border via Chicago. He’s clever, strings her along on the adventure; she starts off thinking she’s saving him but is digging a deeper legal hole for herself the longer it goes on; there are lots of nice incidentals and social commentary along the way but some of what goes on doesn’t completely convince. It all ends wonderfully, though. Anti-climactically, beautifully, with the bonus of a deliciously executed prank leaving an open-ended coda. I’m not sure what got us to it is up to the same mark, which is a shame – I might have faltered were it not a Book group book – but I’m certainly glad I saw it through to the end.
As well as the human story The borrower champions the importance of books, reading and libraries in people’s lives. And it also sweetly plays with the novel form and the way libraries are organised. ‘If a Book Lacked an Epilogue, Ian Would Frequently Offer His Own’ is the chapter head of the epilogue and on the last page she acknowledges some people’s reading habits with “Here are some hopeful last words for the peekers-ahead … who couldn’t help but read the last sentences first.” Near the end Lucy ponders:
How do I catalogue it all? What sticker do I put on the spine? Ian once suggested that in addition to the mystery stickers and the sci-fi and the animal ones, there should be specials tickers for books with happy endings, books with sad endings […] But what warning would I affix to the marvellous and perplexing tale of Ian Drake? A little blue sticker with a question mark, maybe. Crossed fingers. A penny in a fountain.
This is an intriguing and loving book. She believes “that books can save you” and the book is its own testimony. Amen to that. But can the pedant forgive the poetic licensee? “Before this all began,” she says – in italics – in the Prologue (“Ian Was Never Happy Unless There Was a Prologue“) that
… one day I’d arrange my books by main character, down through the alphabet. I realize now where I’d be: Hull, snug between Huck and Humbert, But really I should file it under Drake, for Ian, for the boy I stole …
That’s actually Huck Finn, ma’am. Oh, all right.
The careful use of compliments (2007) is the fourth out of – so far – nine books in the prolific Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie sequence of (sort of) crime novels. I wanted to get a taste because I’ve just ‘discovered’ W.H.Auden and McCall Smith has recently published a book on him, the reviews of which mentioned Isabel’s fond habit of quoting him.
I like her, and, though they inhabit very different Edinburghs, I suspect Ian Rankin’s John Rebus would come round to her refined feistiness once he’d got past her house door number being in Roman numerals and use of words like agape, which I had to look up. (To be fair, that was part of an internal monologue – unconditional love, by the way, from the Greek but appropriated by Christian theologians). As the editor of a small academic journal – crucially for the ongoing dialogue with herself and others it’s the Review of Applied Ethics – and with no financial worries due to inherited wealth, she can afford the indulgences of pondering life’s little dilemmas and nuances philosophically. This can be mostly charming though occasionally tedious, but satisfying enough to make me think I’ll start the sequence at the beginning.
There’s not much of a crime in The careful use of compliments. What there is concerns the authenticity of a painting by a Scottish artist, which does develop into a neat plot involving a visit to Jura, which itself allows some thinking about of George Orwell writing 1984 there. Indeed, a lot of the time there is more suspense involved in whether Isabel will succeed in re-building her relationship with her niece after she’s fallen in love and had a baby with one of said niece’s romantic rejects but it’s these little nuances – she still resents it – entice you in.
Anyway, Isabel rues the fact that there are no public statues of dentists, who should be honoured because they tackle and relieve pain head on – she’s that kind of gal. So, when the academic who has led the putsch against her editorship says he’s coming to Edinburgh to discuss the changeover, she wonders whether to meet him at the station, and her reasoning process is pure Auden:
Her natural goodness dictated that she should offer to be there; but her humanity, which, after all, was not restricted to kindness and sympathy – qualities of humanity surely can be bad, because that is what humanity is like – that same humanity now prompted her to be unhelpful.
Her overcoming of his challenge for the control of the journal is both appalling from one point of view but delightful from another (hers and ours!). The theory and practise of moral philosophy is nicely toyed with nicely, and she’s good company:
… that was the trouble with most people, when it came down to it; there were very few who enjoyed flights of fantasy, and to have that sort of mind – one which appreciated dry wit and understood the absurd – left one in a shrinking minority.
Without giving anything away, the book concludes, “There is a sea of love.” And why not, once in a while?