Narcissus and Goldmund, or Goldmund and Narcissus?
The small, Freiburg-based Verlag Karl Alber, which specializes in philosophy publications, released a novel earlier this year written by Maren Bohm, and the novel is titled “Hermann Hesses wundersame Geschichte”. Bohm is a former high school teacher and has previously written a children’s book and three novels.
Bohm’s newest novel starts with a conceit: Bernd and Karla are at a crossroads in life, and decide to fabricate the discovery of a previously unpublished novel by Hermann Hesse. They will claim to have uncovered a “part two” of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. The latter was originally published in 1930 and, although carrying the names of two characters in its title, primarily relates the adventures of Goldmund as he wanders through medieval Germany, searching for the meaning of life. These adventures begin with his departure from a Catholic monastery school and include numerous love affairs, an apprenticeship with a master carver, an encounter with the plague, and a death sentence, from which his friend, and now abbot, Narcissus saves him.
Bernd and Karla resolve to write a second part that focuses on Narcissus and relativizes Goldmund, in the same way that Hesse’s original novel focused on Goldmund and relativized Narcissus. While Bohm’s treatment of Hesse’s original work begins slowly within the relationship between Bernd and Karla, it takes a remarkable turn when it begins relating Bernd and Karla’s further fictionalized manuscript. This manuscript accounts for the vast bulk of Bohm’s novel, and is crafted with such similarity to Hesse’s language, and is faithful to the 1930 novel, that I had actually forgotten I was reading a story-within-a-story by the time I had reached the conclusion of this portion of the novel.
It is precisely thanks to the true-to-Hesse language and themes that Bohm’s book is a wonderful companion to Hesse’s body of work. Bohm introduces the figures of Bernd and Karla to establish the interrelationships between today and Hesse’s time, between Narcissus and Goldmund, and between her book and Hesse’s original (available at Amazon *), but does not allow their presence to overshadow Hesse’s original characters. In reading Bohm’s work, one may wonder what might have been had Hesse ever returned to these two characters. Why did Hesse concentrate on just one character in his book, yet name it after both? Did he plan to relate equally the experiences of both, but in writing the manuscript feel himself drawn more to just one?
Literature is at its best when it succeeds in bringing its readers to ask more questions than any book purports to answer, and this explains why Bohm’s novel is so effective. Upon finishing the book, I felt compelled to rethink my impression of Hesse’s original book, and even to re-read it. What more could Hermann Hesse have asked for?
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