By Sarah Schweizer
It took three summers of living in the town small town of Montagnola, Switzerland, pointing German tourists toward his house at the end of every morning run, and one moment of sheer desperation for me to finally read a book by the German Modernist writer Hermann Hesse. Hesse, I discovered, had influenced the American beat poets in the mid-1900s and somehow avoided being censored for criticizing Nazi Germany, so it was no wonder I had to direct so many tourists to his house. I simply wish I had not taken so long to get around to reading a book of his. The Indianic epic prose-poem Siddhartha contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. The author completely blew me away with his mastery of words.Siddhartha follows a young Brahmin on his search for self throughout his life. Differences of philosophies aside, Hesse’s exploration of Hinduism in this young man’s story drew me in with their beauty as they followed the natural progression of life, guided by the main character’s intensely reflective disposition. The plot is simple: the young Brahmin rebels against his parents’ wishes by rejecting his place in the priestly Brahmin caste and renouncing all that his family owns and becomes a beggar by joining the meditative life of a shramana. After learning “everything” he rejoins society and becomes a wealthy businessman, only to see the folly in material things, leave his wealth behind, and finally learn what wholeness as a human being means. Hesse’s prose epic form makes for a flexible structure ideal for exploring the stages through which people grow. While at times it struck me as almost too simple, it was clear that the fluid form allowed for more freedom in his poetic writing. The beauty of Hesse’s sentences more than makes up for the simplicity of the plot.
It hit me at the end of the book that perhaps it is this very simplicity that makes room for Hesse’s deeper meditations upon and descriptions of nature and Siddhartha’s thoughts. Life itself is a profound mystery, and Hesse tries to illuminate its depths through his meditative main character. Since the pace of action is slow, the reader is free to accompany Siddhartha in his many meditations, to enjoy the beauty of the river, forest, or silence and learn with the Brahmin from them. These meditations reveal Hesse’s talent for exploring simultaneously the life of a heron and the arrogance of a youth, a shimmering river and the wisdom of an old man.
In this lyrical story, Hesse weaves words together so that they actually flow, reflect, and shimmer just like the nature Siddhartha takes in and learns from. I was so impressed with the flow and rhythm of the words in my English translation that I had to ask one of my boarders from Germany to read a chapter of the original out loud for me. When she finished, she commented, “It is hard to read because it is not like normal, but instead goes like this,” and made a gesture that evoked undulating water. The rhythmic words, even in the translated version, flow like a river and soothe like a lullaby.
My words here are a pale tribute to Hesse’s eloquence. For sentences beautiful enough to suit profound meditations on life and nature, you’ll have to read Siddhartha.
Sarah Schweizer graduated in 2015 with degrees in English and mathematics. She begins work on a masters in literature at the University of Dallas this fall.