Steppenwolf is a very unusual novel; unusual in structure, in theme and ultimate meaning. It would be overly simplistic to think the autobiographical story to be about a man who thinks he is half-wolf, half-human. The title, ‘Steppenwolf’, is best translated as a lone wolf, an outsider, someone outside ordinary society. It is named after the German steppe wolf, a lone species of wolf found in the lower Volga region as well as the Kazakhstan plains.
Initially, the principal story-teller, by the name of Harry Haller, introduces us autobiographically to his to own thoughts and anxieties on the theme of society being offensive, hollow, without worth and frivolous, notably that of middle class bourgeois society. In spite of his academic work, he wanders aimlessly the streets of a city and meets someone handing out pamphlets. Reading one, he notices that it is actually addressed to him by name, describing in detail his conflicting emotions. In particular, it describes his confusion over whether, as a human, he is a sophisticated man, or whether he retains a base, animalistic characteristic that cannot be shaken off – his own steppe wolf.
Harry describes his life as being one of anxiety and depression, notably after he parted from a woman to whom he had become very close. His life was stable when he was with her and through their relationship she offered him the chance of understanding himself; but the breakup resulted in him retreating into himself, finding society anathema and feeling suicidal.
Although the character Harry is an acclaimed academic, philosopher, art critic and writer he never felt part of ordinary society. This underlying animal characteristic keeps emerging. What is he looking for in life? Why do his academic achievements count for nothing? Why does he find modern life so trite, superficial and shallow?
Harry decides to cease writing his autobiographical book and gives the text to the son of his landlady to finish. The son does so and publishes it under his own name. In completing the book, he prints in full the contents of the very pamphlet Harry had been given, so that it then becomes a book-within-a-book. When he eventually reads the completed work, Harry finds it enables him to step outside himself and observe the characteristics of all ‘loners’ – outsiders and steppenwolfs.
The book relates an adventure, following Harry’s encounters with both ordinary and mystical people. Ordinary people are the steppenwolfs of this world, those who inhabit all strats of society and take advantage of it. One such ordinary person is a prostitute who helps him see life from its dark underbelly as she encourages him to partake of the excesses of life without a care.
Whereas those he calls ‘the immortals’ are people who have found the meaning of life and mastered it. One of those he encounters is Goethe, a person Hesse had long admired. Another is Mozart.
But just as life is mysterious, so his encounters are also mysterious. It becomes apparent that Hesse, employing the persona of Harry, is not only exploring his own psyche (all his books reflect his own search for reality) but also exploring the spiritual world, one that lies hidden and beyond us.
The animalistic Steppenwolf within him, the wolf within us all, is gradually softened and blends with the ordinary world once he attends by accident, and enjoys, a riotous dance at a dance hall where he meets a girl Hermine, who laughs at his seriousness and his confusion. Through her, and his mystical encounters in a strange magic theatre, he eventually comes to terms with his dual nature and can laugh at life as she convinces him that it really is worth living.
The book was first published in Germany in 1927 and was hailed as a master work of existentialist autobiography. It is typical of all of Hesse’s work, that he takes us, sometimes uncomfortably, into worlds that contain contradictions and conflicts and tries to resolve them; reflecting his own personal search for understanding.
Hesse won the Nobel Prize in 1946, his first book Peter Camenzind, becoming a cult text for the young of the sixties. It too questioned modern society, notably the apparent respectability of the bourgeoisie.
Expect a fascinating read; one that is not what it first appears to be. Be surprised also not only by its text but also by its very structure.
This is an edited version of a review first published on the author’s Facebook page in June 2018.