All his volcanoes flaming

Klingsor's Last Summer

A young boy trespasses in his father's study, and the consequences of a childish act bear him painfully and fearfully into a kind of emotional adolescence. A tormented soul, having killed his wife and child, escapes to a Mediterranean town. Through a brief relationship with a dancer he achieves a kind of relief from his torture. Finally, the eponymous Klingsor paints, drinks, declaims and debauches his way through the world, like a shooting star blazing across the sky, to a conclusion that only realises itself through his work and his loves.

At first glance this triptych seems to have been assembled as an afterthought, as a compilation rather than a coherent work. But the three stories share deep thematic resemblances, not easily uncovered, rather than any inheritance of characters or plot or surface ideas. All deal with painful transitions and an inner life examined in the same way as one scrapes paint off wooden furniture to see how the items might look without the veneers of civilization. In each, conventional morality comes up against a queer but powerful mixture, primal and implacable, an ideal morality of the soul arising from a mixture of fay ce que voudras and the unsullied aesthetics that a perfect artist might be able to express.

If society as a whole were to adopt this rather Nietzschean paradigm of ethics then anarchy, or at any rate a sort of meritocratic feudalism, might result. But Hesse never suggests that mankind as a whole ought to make such an ethical switch. Instead, this is the unique morality---a spirituality of unique codes---that each of the characters must follow on his own to achieve redemption. The boy eschews good and evil as incomprehensible, but perceives a deeper morality through fear of the chaos that he can instinctively see around the truly moral path; the man rejects his animalistic impulses to hurt and achieve advantage in favour of a dissolution of his own ego; the burnt-out artist surrenders himself to Bacchanalian impulses and the true expression of his soul in his art.

Hesse is invariably heavy-going, with melodramatic dialogue and concentration on the internal experiences of his characters. In fact, the density of his prose seems the greatest in the first story, that of the child: as this is arguably the most autobiographical of the three, that might shed light on its precise delineation of the narrator's young self. But the effect of the stories is cumulative, amassing a richness of sense and feeling as the book proceeds.Were he not to make allusions and some direct references to Wagner himself then Hesse's work would probably attract comparisons anyway. Here, lying hidden and quiescent, is a powerful furnace of a work, a crucible, to dip one's self into and emerge changed by its alchemy.