Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse

Book # 684


SSteppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a man who is miserably struggling to deal with two very different aspects of his personality – one of these he views as a man and the other as a wolf. He finds his ‘man self’ excited by the trappings of the bourgeois lifestyle he more or less leads, but his ‘wolf self’ hates it and finds it ridiculous. He is only really happy in the moments where he can feel completely man, or completely wolf. These moments are few and far between.

Soon Haller meets Hermine, a woman who tells him she is just like him, and spends an unforgettable night in a theatre “for madmen only.”  The bulk of the novel is Haller’s experiences in the theatre and their impact on the condition of his dual soul.

I was surprised at how accessible and digestible this novel was, based on what I’ve heard and read about Hesse in general. Though I will admit it did give me a few nights of very intense dreams, especially the night I put the book up and went to sleep in the middle of Harry’s theatre visit.

While I know very little about philosophy, Eastern or Western, and have just a basic understanding of Jung’s work, it’s easy to see their influence here.

The multiplicity of the soul:

“In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.”

Humans as a grand experiment:

Man is “nothing else than the narrow and perilous bridge between nature and spirit. His innermost destiny drives him on to the spirit and to God. His innermost longing draws him back to nature, the mother.”

The unimportance of physical objects:

Experiences are our “life’s possession and all its worth.”

And the fluidity of the soul:

“My personality was dissolved in the intoxication of the festivity like salt in water.”

I was very impressed with Harry as a character. His struggles, while extreme, make a lot of sense and express what I know that I certainly feel occasionally – that life can lack a sense of progress or greater purpose, leaving dissatisfaction and lack of motivation. In the end, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, Hesse’s answer for Harry is this:

Just like the radio spoils and beslimes music “and yet cannot altogether destroy its spirit, just so does life, the so-called reality, deal with the sublime picture-play of the world and make a hurley-burley of it…All life is so, my child, and we must let it be so; and, if we are not asses, laugh at it.

Easier said than done, and difficult to wrap the mind around, of course. Seeing as how we’re alive, living life and have been as long as we’ve had consciousness, we can’t really get an outside perspective on this the way we can on music. But it is helpful as a reminder to relax and remember that not everything is rational, nor does it need to be.

My favorite part of the book was the surreal, bizarre culminating scene (the last third of the book, really) because I was very intrigued and impressed with how Hesse took the conscious thoughts and actions of Harry and developed a fitting subconscious dream-world that served as both a source of and an outlet for who Harry is and what he believes. It’s an impressive feat of writing.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Book # 992



 “I have seen no book of chivalry that creates a complete tale, a body with all its members intact, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and the middle; instead, they are composed with so many members that the intention seems to be to shape a chimera or a monster rather than to create a well-proportioned figure. Furthermore, the style is fatiguing, the action incredible, the love lascivious, the courtesies clumsy, the battles long, the language foolish, the journeys nonsensical, and, finally, since they are totally lacking in intelligent artifice, they deserve to be banished, like unproductive people, from Christian nations.”

As this long quotation from Don Quixote makes clear, romantic books of chivalry are terrible. So author Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in 1605 to satirize the form. And he does it well, taking each negative about books of chivalry he lists and, through comedy and wordplay, turning it into a positive. The result is a long, epic novel in two parts that is about chivalry but anything but terrible. After all, “The benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?

While very over the top, Don Quixote is a wonderful reading experience. Don Quixote is a fantastic character, with a stubborn streak that lets him truly believe in his own inventions. He even manages to convince one other person, his squire Sancho Panza: “Sancho Panza is one of the most amusing squires who ever served a knight errant; at times his simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure.

Sancho was my favorite character. He waxes and wanes between knowing his master is crazy and utterly believing in his inventions and adventures. Sancho is somewhat prone to malapropism, but not to the extent of, say, Mrs. Slipslop in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews. His more extensive verbal tendency is using endless proverbs, some more apt than others in any given situation. Here’s an example of Sancho’s speech: “Because in a well-stocked house, supper is soon cooked; and if you cut the cards, you don’t deal; and the man who sounds the alarm is safe; and for giving and keeping, you need some sense.

Sancho keeps things moving, adding humor to situations where Don Quixote’s ridiculousness might just seem sad. Above all, I loved the scenes where Sancho carried out his duties as ‘governor.’

I did feel that the novel could have been shorter – some of Don Quixote’s adventures are a bit repetitive. He basically attacks anyone and anything, demanding they admit his beloved Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world – there are only so many ways to make this amusing. I also found the ending a bit of a let-down; it was clear that Cervantes just wanted to make certain no one else would ever write about Don Quixote. That said, this is a 400-year-old novel – it’s literally exemplary.

Elizabeth Costello – J.M.Coetzee

Book #52

Reviewer: Kara

ECElizabeth Costello is the story of an Australian novelist in her later years. Each chapter of the book features a lecture or debate, hers or someone else’s, as well as discussions and meetings surrounding the central lecture. Elizabeth’s thoughts and beliefs around a series of complex ideas are the threads tying the novel together.

This novel is relatively short in words, but long on ideas and themes. I read it in just a few days, but I spent at least as much time again to digest and gather my thoughts.

“Things can be true, she now thinks, even if one does not believe in them, and conversely.”  Elizabeth’s thoughts and ideas have changed since her youth, confusing the logic of her lectures, but leaving them much more fascinating than clearly articulated, logically-flawless arguments would be. After all, the themes themselves (the difference between humans and animals, the role of the novel, our ability to be the “other”) are messy and complex, not cut-and-dry. Coetzee elegantly navigates these ideas the way a real person who is intelligent and thoughtful, but also immersed in issues beyond easy human understanding, would. The result is a very interesting and interlocking set of ideas that give quite a bit of food for thought.

One idea is the differences and similarities between three categories of “life”: animals, humans, and god(s). In several lectures, Elizabeth argues for treating and understanding animals the same as we do ourselves. She argues that animals have a soul just as humans do. Where her argument (and also, I would say, human understanding) breaks down is when it comes to a difference between humans and animals: reason. Elizabeth argues that the scientific experiments designed to determine if animals can think are not useful because they lack complexity: “We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity. There is something self-stultified in the way in which scientific behaviorism recoils from the complexity of life.”  She says that animal reason is different from human reason, and there is no translation between the two.

Later, the novel discusses the relationship between humans and god(s) and it becomes clear that the major difference between the two is belief. In the final chapter, Coetzee writes “without beliefs we are not human.” Elizabeth also hears from another character that those with difficult lives (those who, unlike immortal gods, will face death) cannot afford not to believe and have faith. This echoes an earlier experience Elizabeth had in Africa where she learns that faith and company in suffering are critical comforts for people. Ultimately, Elizabeth says that all it means to be alive is “to be able to die.” The ultimate difference between humans and gods is that gods are not living.

Compounding these issues is the issue of our ability to be or experience “the other” – to stand in another’s shoes. When arguing that humans can indeed experience life as an animal does, Elizabeth says that “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.” However, when it comes to humans and gods, Elizabeth changes her mind, seeing limits: “the physical mingling of two orders of being… is strictly speaking not possible, not while the laws of nature continue to hold.” She wonders what kind of hybrid being a god must become to allow humans to experience and understand. This argument is echoed later in the final chapter when Elizabeth glimpses beyond the gate to the afterlife and is disappointed to see nothing that is beyond human experience.

The most interesting moment is when Elizabeth describes the way the gods must see humans: “So like us in many respects, their eyes in particular so expressive; what a pity they lack that je ne sais quoi without which they can never ascend to sit beside us!” This is fascinating because it is so clearly the way humans see animals.

The final theme of the book is the role of the novel in allowing us to experience “the other,” for good or for bad. Elizabeth brings together all three modes of being when she says: “All is allegory… each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog … is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation. And perhaps in the mind of our Creator… where we whirl about as if in a millrace we interpenetrate and are interpenetrated by fellow creatures by the thousand.” The novel is the ultimate allegory, offering guidance and experience that cannot be had otherwise. Elizabeth explains this most clearly when she describes writers as “secretaries to the invisible,” bringing the unknown to light. Over the course of her life, Elizabeth begins to see danger in this that she didn’t see earlier in life. She begins to believe that evil is everywhere, just waiting to creep into the light, and a novel is the perfect opportunity because, once released, it’s almost impossible to stop: “When the storyteller opens the bottle, the genie is released into the world, and it costs all hell to get him back in again.”

If you’re looking for fun or adventure in your next read, definitely look elsewhere, but if you’re in the mood to have your synapses poked and prodded, I highly recommend Elizabeth Costello. I have tried here in this review to share the themes of this wonderful novel without deluding myself or others that I can tie them up in a neat little bow. Part of the strength of Coetzee’s novel is that it allows Elizabeth to be human. She is a vehement defender of what she thinks she knows, or at least knows for the moment. Like animals, we do not always have reason and even when we do, reason sometimes turns out to be, in Elizabeth’s words: “the monster.”

Rickshaw Boy – Lao She

Book # 626a

Reviewer: Kara

RB“The life of a poor man…was like the pit of a date, pointed on both ends and round in the middle. You’re lucky to get through childhood without dying of hunger, and can hardly avoid starving to death when you’re old. Only during your middle years, when you’re strong and unafraid of either hunger or hard work, can you live like a human being.”

This is the essence of Lao She’s Chinese classic novel Rickshaw Boy. Xiangzi is an impoverished rickshaw puller in his twenties who is ambitious enough to make sacrifices and save up to improve his lot in life, only to have his hopes and dreams dashed over and over again. The moment things are going right for Xiangzi, another misadventure befalls him. Despite this endless tragedy, Lao She’s story is comical, if painfully so. The sheer unfairness of the ups and downs and the matter-of-fact tone of the writing force the reader to laugh with a grimace.

The city of Beiping (now known as Beijing) plays a critical role in the book.  As a rickshaw man, Xiangzi knows every nook and cranny. Despite the poverty and lack of opportunity he faces, Xiangzi never has a negative thought about his city. In fact, “Xiangzi had but one friend: this ancient city.” He can’t imagine ever leaving it, even if leaving might improve his situation. Beiping is home for Xiangzi in the fullest sense of the word.

Ultimately, Rickshaw Boy is the story of the hopelessness that results from extreme poverty. Without the slightest chance to ever live comfortably, Lao She makes clear that a rickshaw man has little reason to work any harder than he must to survive the day:

“Sloth is the natural result of unrewarded hard work among the poor, reason enough for them to be prickly.”

He also has little reason to even think about the future. After all, any gains he makes will be taken from him:

“Experience had taught him that tomorrow was but an extension of today, a continuation of the current wrongs and abuses.”

Rickshaw Boy is a quick and fairly easy read, with a very overt message. What I enjoyed most about it reading it was the fact that it took me well outside the usual realm of literary classics from America and Great Britain. Rickshaw Boy is a Chinese story and a successful portal into 1930s China. But it’s also a universal story of the hopelessness that extreme economic disparity breeds; this is a very relevant message in our world today.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Book# 13

Reviewer: Kara


“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?”

So it is for the souls in Cloud Atlas, a novel of nested stories. The time period and characters are different in each story, but it’s clear that many of them share souls with each other – they ARE each other, reborn.

The first story takes place in the late 1800s and we enter it like a powerful drill digging into the crust of the earth. Each story – there are six – takes our drill deeper, and forward in time, until we reach the core, a story set several hundred years in the future. We don’t stop there, but on the other side of the core we continue on through the same layers in reverse, until we arrive back at the surface, in the 1800s, where we started.

The six stories are connected in many ways. Not only do the characters share souls, but each protagonist reads or hears the story of the one who came before them. Additionally, the stories together serve as a history of human greed and desire for power, ultimately leading to the end of civilization as we know it. One character writes: “In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction. Is this the doom written within our nature?”

I was fascinated by this novel. It wasn’t the individual stories exactly – they are strong and well-written, but not mind-blowing – it was the interconnection between them. Mitchell captures and builds his themes in these very, very different stories in an astounding way. I can honestly say he does this better than any other novel in stories I’ve read before. The threads are woven beautifully and almost magically – the book IS the fictional symphony (one character composes a musical masterpiece called Cloud Atlas Sextet) that gives it its name. His experiment absolutely succeeds.

I also enjoyed the thread of repeated events or experiences – as one character says, “we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.” – coupled with the ongoing revelation that there really are no patterns. It’s so easy to find patterns in history and turn them into theories and laws after the fact, but that can never ensure a certain outcome in the future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes thought-provoking contemporary literature. Cloud Atlas is beautifully imagined and its stories will stay with you.

“Souls cross the skies o’ time… like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world.”