The Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game

The final novel of Hermann Hesse, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, 'The Glass Bead Game' is a fascinating tale of the complexity of modern life as well as a classic of modern literature.Set in the 23rd century, 'The Glass Bead Game' is the story of Joseph Knecht, who has been raised in Castalia, the remote place his society has provided for the inte...

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Title:The Glass Bead Game
Author:Hermann Hesse
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Edition Language:English

The Glass Bead Game Reviews

  • Ben Winch

    There’s a scene in Antonio Tabucchi’s

    in which the narrator meets an Indian intellectual who asks him, among other things, what he thinks of Hermann Hesse. The narrator, resenting the interruption and perhaps with a sense he is being mocked, heaps scorn on the German “spiritualist”, calling him sentimental and likening him to a sweet liqueur, and only later realises he hasn’t said what he thought of Hesse at all. In some way, these days, I suspect there’s a little of this narrato

    There’s a scene in Antonio Tabucchi’s

    in which the narrator meets an Indian intellectual who asks him, among other things, what he thinks of Hermann Hesse. The narrator, resenting the interruption and perhaps with a sense he is being mocked, heaps scorn on the German “spiritualist”, calling him sentimental and likening him to a sweet liqueur, and only later realises he hasn’t said what he thought of Hesse at all. In some way, these days, I suspect there’s a little of this narrator in many of us. Hesse – unlike Kafka or Beckett or Mann – is not an intellectual’s badge of honour. Frequently, I’ve approached one or another of his books again after a hiatus half-expecting that this time I will have grown out of him, but I never do.

    has enthralled me since I first read it in my teens – and probably I understand only marginally more of it now than I did then. The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” (unlike much of the rest of that most famous of his novels) I likewise revere. The early novella

    is a small masterpiece, touching and true.

    has its moments,

    too (though again its fame is out of proportion to its content), and

    and many of the short stories and even

    if you’re on a roll and don’t want to stop. But looming over all of them, dwarfing them and pulling together most of what’s best in each of them is

    , a book which, despite myself, and though I doubt I’ll be able to convey why without reading it again (a fourth time), I count among the five or so most transformative reading experiences in my lifetime.

    Like

    or “The Treatise...”, the “General Introduction [to the Glass Bead Game] for the Layman” is Hesse at his finest – not so dissimilar to Borges in his essayistic tone and otherworldly humour, and throwing out mindbending concepts with casual aplomb.

    In other words, an early glimpse of post-modernity, but telescoped into an imaginary future (after what Hesse dryly characterises as “The Age of the Feuilleton”) in which – for the purposes of players of the Glass Bead Game – artistic production has stopped or gone underground, and the highest cultural calling is to manipulate what has been left behind by former ages, to create – in a hyper-ritualised setting and for the benefit of worldwide audiences – these “games” that are part music, part mathematics, and use a futuristic brand of calligraphic characters to sample and integrate their component parts into a quasi-equation that can later be studied and reproduced. At the centre of this enterprise, the Magister Ludi – or master of the Glass Bead Game – is treated like a priest or deity by devotees of the game. But there is none of the rock- or movie-star “cult of personality” about these figures; not only are their identities kept secret except from a few close initiates, but their study in biographies or histories is discouraged.

    Nevertheless,

    is, for the most part, a biography of one earnest if somewhat rebellious Magister, Joseph Knecht – a man whose early brilliance followed by his ultimate resignation is a touchstone for all who question the value of life behind the cloistered walls of Castalia, the “pedagogical province” in which his story takes place. What do we have here then, if not the old, “pathology”-based form of a biography? A kind of everyman story, the story of a type. But Hesse’s type – and I think this is beautiful in light of the leader of his former homeland when he wrote this – is a leader, the

    leader, and the culmination of a search which runs throughout Hesse’s work. Joseph Knecht

    a kind of holy man, but with none of the pomp or self-importance which, maybe, these days, that implies. “Knecht” in German means “servant”, and throughout his short life Knecht impresses us as just that, a servant both to those he governs and to some other voice – or “calling” – which comes to him from beyond. Like all of Hesse’s characters, Knecht exists to “find himself”, but unlike Harry Haller or Knulp or Emil Sinclair or even Siddhartha, he does not despair (at least not in these pages); like Leo, the leader-in-disguise of the Journeyers to the East, he remains tranquil and alert to his duties. Throughout the book Knecht’s own writings are quoted, and at the end of the “Introduction...”, in speaking of classical music, he writes the following:

    Earlier Knecht’s biographer had warned us:

    People fault Hesse for what they see as his sentimentality. Sometimes, I can see their point (as in the relationship of Harry Haller to his young prostitute friend in

    , for example). But when he manages to rise above all the doubts and complaints of that lonely wolf of the steppes, there is actually something quietly heroic in Hesse’s stance. In Switzerland, in 1943, along with his friends Paul Klee and Hugo Ball of the Cabaret Voltaire, this man refuses absolutely to play the “heaven-offending keys”. Whatever he creates will partake only of that “superhuman laughter” and “death-defying intrepidity”, no matter what horrors his homeland can spew forth (and, as his writings on the war show, Hesse was far from ignorant of these). And so, on the surface, his may seem a fantasy for which the modern (or post-modern) world has little use: escapism, idealism, even (amid the destruction of Europe by guns and explosives) lyricism. But read more closely and it’s evident that the despairing, human Hesse is passionately present in almost every word of this. Yes, the characters in

    – like Beckett’s characters, like Kafka’s – can seem more or less than human. No, there is no sexuality in their world (nor in

    , for that matter), and as if to foreground this lack Hesse writes his “Introduction...” entirely from a genderless “we” standpoint, which while not spelling it out seems to suggest (or has always suggested to me, anyway) that we are to treat these characters as beyond or outside of the ordinary realm of the sexual. (Why? Perhaps because, to a German in Europe in 1943, sexuality did not seem that crucial a topic.) Me, I’ve never demanded “realism” from fiction; in fact, I

    writers who alert me to the fact that the beings they create are not human. Likewise, I don’t care in the least that the end section of the book – “Joseph Knecht’s Posthumous Writings” – is probably just a series of sketches done in warm-up for the task of creating Knecht. To me, at least one of these novellas (“The Father Confessor”) is easily among the best of Hesse’s works in its own right and never fails to have me in tears by the end of it. And even the poetry (poorly-suited to translation as it is) is illuminating in showing the genesis of the conception.

    If I haven’t said much about the substance of Knecht’s story, the truth is I don’t remember much of it, but for snatches of scenery (which Hesse describes so well) and a general feeling of the excitement of a young man following his calling. If you read for plot, this isn’t the book for you. But if you want to hear the wisdom of a wise, possibly heartbroken man determined, despite everything, not to hit the jarring notes of the diabolic keys but to sing with the laughing voice of an angel, this is it. I don’t care if that sounds sentimental. The world

    artists who are willing to speak calmly from the storm, and Hermann Hesse was one of them. I take my hat off to you, Herr Hesse. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your guidance.

  • BlackOxford

    I first read

    almost 60 years ago. It changed my life. With just the right cues of romance, high-tech adventure, philosophical mystery, and heroism, the book invaded my adolescent mind, laid down roots and suggested a long term plan: I would one day be able to play the Game. And I succeeded, at least during a goodly portion of my adult life, when I wasn’t distracted by the trivialities of wealth, status, and religion. So I re

    I first read

    almost 60 years ago. It changed my life. With just the right cues of romance, high-tech adventure, philosophical mystery, and heroism, the book invaded my adolescent mind, laid down roots and suggested a long term plan: I would one day be able to play the Game. And I succeeded, at least during a goodly portion of my adult life, when I wasn’t distracted by the trivialities of wealth, status, and religion. So I realised it was about time for me to revisit the ur-inspiration. A dangerous undertaking, I know, but perhaps the book could provide a sort of retrospective structure that I couldn’t consciously recall. Worth the risk then.

    The epigraph alone rekindles the fire that smoulders still in my unconscious:

    I have experienced just this motivation with the force of compulsion. The task is both poetic and practical: to help people, particularly myself, to see what is hidden by what they already see, the things within and beyond what is apparently there. For a child of 13 or so, to have one’s inarticulate intuition - that there is more to life than its surface - confirmed is profoundly important.

    I viewed the “Order” and the fellowship of the game seriously and admired

    My first attempt involved a Carmelite monastery. The next a military career. Followed by a time in professional academia and subsequently an international consulting firm which is best described as a professional Protestant monastery.

    All these, and most choices that followed, had the intention of assimilation into one form or another of an organisation of united and mutually supportive minds. The professional context didn’t really matter. I had, it appears, a calling not dissimilar to that of the young Joseph Knecht, eventually the

    , who had

    necessary to persist in

    . Even today I find myself a member of a Dominican academic community which is the same size and similar in atmosphere to that of Knecht’s school at Waldzell. Somewhat remarkably, I suppose, I have never been a joiner of clubs, or groups, or congregations, only those with some sort of monastic potential.

    Even the international firm to which I belonged, commercial as is was, had an ethos which could have been taken straight from

    . It’s senior partners were among the most powerful and influential business leaders in the country. Yet the head of the firm said to me proudly one day at lunch

    When he said this I immediately recalled Hesse’s lines:

    Rarely did this assimilation ever feel oppressive or threatening to my individuality. As with

    :

    In order to make the point, I had the habit of submitting an undated resignation on the day I started any job. Even that felt like a ritual of integration. I exercised it myself by “leaping,” to use Joseph Knecht’s term, whenever I felt

    was being threatened.

    The idea of the rules of

    , its language, and symbology undoubtedly provoked some sort of teen-age mysticism. But what most attracted me and still does is that

    is

    years later I would discover Wittgenstein and know that this is precisely what he must have meant in his term ‘language games.’

    The downside from a career perspective, of course, is that narrow disciplinary constrains and professional mores became increasingly problematic. The world at large expects increasing specialisation with age. But for me intellectual maturity has always been a matter of expansion rather than refinement. This has made me less well-off than I might have been. But I am more than content. I also find that I retain some tendencies toward teen-age mysticism. Perhaps this is an accomplishment.

    It has been said that one is born either an Aristotelian or a Platonist. Empirically, it seems to me, there is some strength in this assertion. I am certainly in the camp of the latter and therefore fit right in to the Platonic bias of

    , which Aristotelians would merely find just silly. It was Hesse who piqued my interest in philosophers like Nicholas of Cusa and Gottfried Leibniz. And through them into the idea of the ideal as a symbol of both purpose and the aesthetical.

    Unconsciously I suppose, I found myself associating with other Platonists and quasi-Platonists - West Churchman at Berkeley, Russell Ackoff and Tom Cowan at Penn, Oliver O’Donovan at Oxford. Around each of these was a sort of invisible college, the members of which unknowingly participated in many rounds of

    . That many of them are dead or no longer in my daily life is neither regrettable nor sad since the Order continues to unite us.

    Hesse’s idea of the

    as a motivating social force for the development of The Game resonated in my young life with what I perceived as the random character of what people worried about - nuclear war, mortal sin, cures for acne - and what might actually matter. For Hesse, the daily newspaper was more about gossip than the factual information necessary for life. Hesse’s narrator has only disdain for this age of wasted freedom:

    Years later, I encountered William Gaddis’s

    and had a spark of remembrance about Hesse’s witty critiques of celebrity and

    , particularly among self-proclaimed artists, and most specifically writers. And many years still later, I am overwhelmed by Hesse’s prescience in anticipating the evil of unintelligent internet social media. Perhaps they will be exactly the catalyst necessary for the real creation of The Game!

    Mathematics and Music are the core disciplines of

    . I can blame Hesse for implanting this as a seed in my psyche. It legitimised for me my interest in numbers (but certainly not the techniques of calculation insisted upon by my teachers) and classical music (of which none of my contemporaries had the slightest interest). Once again, it is unclear whether

    provoked or merely articulated these interests.

    Ultimately it doesn’t matter because

    is my personal symbol for both. Recently while reading Edward Rothstein’s Emblems of Mind, a book which critiques music in terms of mathematical aesthetics and vice versa, I had very clear flashbacks of my pleasant surprise at being able to adopt Hesse’s discovery as my own. I have occasionally abandoned either mathematics or music as one might lose one’s childhood religion. But they have always returned as the matrix of my own version of

    .

    I could go on

    recounting the many other specific influences that

    The Glass Bead Game has had on my life. But this short reflection is enough to show me the profound depths to which we can be influenced by what we consume as literature in early life. I don’t know what lessons this might entail.

    Perhaps the reflection is only productive as a sort of therapy that makes conscious what has been hidden for decades from will and choice. Hesse suggests this might be his intent in the text where he describes

    evolving as “a form of concentrated self-awareness for intellectuals.“ Having said that, there is nothing I would change about allowing

    into my life.

  • Manuel Antão

    If you're into stuff like this,

    Hessian Fable: "The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse

    I read this in German a long time ago (2002-06-15).

    I suppose it depends on whether working through the difficulty brings you genuine insights into the human condition. I'm ashamed to say I've only read one book on this list - Ulysses - and enjoyed it. I like modernism, and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of my favourites. Woolf is a bit daunting, but Mrs. Dallowa

    If you're into stuff like this,

    Hessian Fable: "The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse

    I read this in German a long time ago (2002-06-15).

    I suppose it depends on whether working through the difficulty brings you genuine insights into the human condition. I'm ashamed to say I've only read one book on this list - Ulysses - and enjoyed it. I like modernism, and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of my favourites. Woolf is a bit daunting, but Mrs. Dalloway is superb.

  • Ahmad Sharabiani

    576. Das Glasperlenspiel = The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse

    The Glass Bead Game (German: Das Glasperlenspiel) is the last full-length novel of the German author Hermann Hesse. It was begun in 1931 and published in Switzerland in 1943 after being rejected for publication in Germany due to Hesse's anti-Fascist views. A few years later, in 1946, Hesse went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In honoring him in its Award Ceremony Speech, the Swedish Academy said that the novel "occupies a speci

    576. Das Glasperlenspiel = The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse

    The Glass Bead Game (German: Das Glasperlenspiel) is the last full-length novel of the German author Hermann Hesse. It was begun in 1931 and published in Switzerland in 1943 after being rejected for publication in Germany due to Hesse's anti-Fascist views. A few years later, in 1946, Hesse went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In honoring him in its Award Ceremony Speech, the Swedish Academy said that the novel "occupies a special position" in Hesse's work.

    عنوانها: سالهای آزادی؛ بازی مهره شیشه‌ ای؛ نویسنده: هرمان هسه؛ انتشاراتیها: (فردوس و نگاه سبز ...) ادبیات؛ تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز دوم ماه ژانویه سال 2009 میلادی

    عنوان: بازی مهره شیشه ای؛ نویسنده: هرمان هسه؛ مترجم: پرویز داریوش؛ تهران، فردوس، چاپ سوم 1368؛ در 548 ص؛ چاپ سوم فردوس 1376؛ بالای عنوان: اوستاد بازی؛ چاپ دیگر: تهران، بدیهه، فردوس، 1374؛ چاپ دیگر: تهران، فردوس، 1386؛ شابک: 9789643202577؛ چاپ پنجنم 1392؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان آلمانی - قرن 20 م

    عنوان: سالهای آزادی؛ نویسنده: هرمان هسه؛ مترجم: عرفان قانعی فرد؛ تهران، نگاه سبز، 1379؛ در 617 ص؛ شابک: 9645939611؛

    کتاب نخسین بار در سال 1943 میلادی، در سوئیس انتشار یافت. «هسه» در نامه‌ ای که در سال 1955 میلادی، به دوستی به نام: «رودلف پان ویتس» مینویسند: خاطراتی را از زمان رستن و جان گرفتن این داستان باز می‌گوید. نقل از متن: آن اندیشه که در اصل مرا برافروخت تصور تناسخ بود، به صورت محملی که از طریق آن ثبات در تبدیل، دوام در سنت و زندگی روح به طورکلی بیان شود. آنگاه روزی، چند سال پیش از آنکه عملاً به نوشتن حکایت بپردازم، داستان زندگی خاص اما ابَرزمانه را رؤیت کردم. انسانی را تصور کردم که طی چند حلول دوران‌های عظیم تاریخ بشری را می‌آزماید. برای ساختن آن زمان که بتوانم در آن: پناه، نیرو و دلداری بیابم، همین بسنده بود که هر زمان فرضی را در گذشته برانگیزم و عاشقانه تصویر کنم... دیدم که با رد زمان، خیره سر باید اثبات کنم که سلطان جان و روان وجود دارد، اما شکست ناپذیر است. با درک این نکته، نقشه ی من به سوی تجلی ناکجاآباد، به تخیلی که در آینده افکنده شده باشد، تغییر جهت داد. چه سراسیمه شدم وقتی که ایالت «کاستالیا» سر برآورد. نیازی نبود که در اندیشه جان بگیرد یا ساخته شود. بی آنکه خود بدانم از مدتی پیش درون من شکل گرفته بود. پس آن بست را که دنبالش می‌گشتم یافته بودم. «کاستالیا» را باید مفهومی بری از زمان درک کرد، که واقعیت درونی خود را واجد است و هدف آن نشان دادن امکان زندگی روح و روان است. «بازی مهره شیشه‌ ای» شیوه‌ ای است از بازی کردن با مجموع محتویات فرهنگ ما، بدانگونه با آنها بازی می‌کند که گفتی در عصر شگرف هنرها، نگارگری با رنگ‌های روی شستی خود، با درون بینی‌ها، اندیشه‌ های والا، آثار هنری که بشر در دروان‌های آفرینندگی خود پدید آورده‌ است، همه آنچه مطالعات دانشمندانه به مفاهیم بدل کرده و به صورت ملک فکری درآورده‌ است، با تمام این مجموعه عظیم ارزش‌های فکری، بازیکن بازی مهره شیشه‌ ای به گونه ارگ نوازی که ارگ بنوازد، بازی می‌کند.... پایان نقل از متن.... سال‌ها تمرین باید تا کسی بازی را به شایستگی ببازد، تنها چند تن این هنر را به غایت می‌رسانند و تها یک تن می‌تواند «استاد بازی» شود و این مقامی است که بدو توان می‌بخشد تا بازی‌های بزرگ عمومی را طرح و هدایت کند. اما بالاترین حالتی که از بازی کردن بازی مهره شیشه‌ ای باید حاصل شود، سلامت نفس است، و این چیزی است که «هسه» در همه ی آثار خود، از رمان و شعر و مقاله و نقد به دنبال آن بوده‌ است. «سلیم» و «سلامت نفس» در نامه‌ ها و گفت و گوهای آخر عمر «هسه» فراوان به کار گرفته شده‌ اند. ا. شربیانی

  • Darwin8u

    ― Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

    I remember reading Hesse's

    and

    right out of high school. There was something both disquieting and uniquely calming about these strange little books that Hesse wrote detailing his love and fascination with Eastern thought and philosophy. I figured this year I would read the Glass Bead Game (and later Steppenwolf). It is in many ways Hesse's subtle an

    ― Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

    I remember reading Hesse's

    and

    right out of high school. There was something both disquieting and uniquely calming about these strange little books that Hesse wrote detailing his love and fascination with Eastern thought and philosophy. I figured this year I would read the Glass Bead Game (and later Steppenwolf). It is in many ways Hesse's subtle answer to the growing Fascism in his country. But, at its heart, it isn't an anti-Fascist book. He is aiming for more. He is thinking bigger.

    It is a book about harmony and the arts. The exploration of how music, mathematics, intellectualism and life can become transcendent and beautiful. The Glass Bead Game is a mysterious fill-in that allows it to be at once none and all of man's endeavors. It is a holy raga, a tactile masbaha, a literary syncretism, that captures the whole of man's achievements and is practiced by an elite few. Using the framework of the Game Hesse is able to look at the dynamic of all of man's achievements as being both beautiful, worthwhile, but also frivolous and fleeting. He looks at the tension between those who remove themselves from mankind's experiences with those who live IN the world. There is a pull and a reciprocity between these two groups. He is looking for those things that balance those groups and ultimately those things that cause these groups to separate.

    The book also explores the (mostly) Eastern ideas of meditation, surrender, loss and renewal. I found these ideas (obviously) beautiful and rewarding, but I'm still not sure if I really liked the structure of the book:

    . I'm just not sure if the structure worked for me. It did well enough, but I loved and hated it too. Maybe that was Hesse's intention. The first part was a parody of those 'history of the saints' that appear so often and so frequently in all religious traditions. It was interesting, but just didn't mix well with the final parts of the novel. I did like having Knecht's (re)incarnations be outside of time. While Magister Ludi was set in the future, the other incarnations of Magister Ludi were more likely from the past. An interesting construct, but the weight of the last was too little for the heavy front.

    But these are frivolous issues. For the most part, I liked the book. It is incredible that in the face of WWII and Nazi Germany Hesse could write this. History and the inevitable burning push of evil must have seemed dark and heavy, but ultimately this book (written from 1931 to 1943) contains the germs of peace and tranquility. I think that peace comes from the idea of a spiritual retreat (a common theme) and surrender. Hesse wasn't saying to run from Evil, although he did himself leave Nazi Germany. But I think his book was communicating the ability to find peace through surrendering to one's own situation and place in the universe. The Glass Bead Game one day will disappear, but so too ONE DAY will fascism and evil, because all of man's creation is a game. So, surrender to the game and surrender to the universe.

  • Chloe

    I feel that I must open this review by stating that I am an unabashed fanboy of Hermann Hesse. I read everything that he had ever written at a whirlwind pace several years ago and still return to my favorites,

    ,

    and

    , on a rotating yearly basis. That said, I have often heard that

    is the magnum opus of Hesse's career. The purest expression of the themes that he had highlighted in his other works. If one were to read only one book by Hesse it should

    I feel that I must open this review by stating that I am an unabashed fanboy of Hermann Hesse. I read everything that he had ever written at a whirlwind pace several years ago and still return to my favorites,

    ,

    and

    , on a rotating yearly basis. That said, I have often heard that

    is the magnum opus of Hesse's career. The purest expression of the themes that he had highlighted in his other works. If one were to read only one book by Hesse it should be this one, I had been told. No offense to those earnest recommendations, but I could have gone a long time without reading this dull retread of every one of Hesse's other books.

    So many of the same character types and situations appear in these pages that I can't help but feel I'm reading a Cliff's Notes version of his oeuvre. The strangely passionate yet platonic love affair of minds between an elder scholar and an impetuous youth a la

    ? Check. The intense friendship between two geniuses; one sheltered and naive, the other worldly and brash like those in

    ? They're here too. A Westernized attempt to understand the mysticism and philosophical underpinnings of Eastern religions a la

    and Journey to the East? Oh yes, they too are here.

    This repetition in itself does not make

    unappealing. Stretching these themes over some 400+ pages in Hesse's typically dense prose does. This isn't a bad book and might actually be a good one. But coming into it expecting something unique would be a mistake. This has all been written before, and far more engagingly.

  • Robin Tell-Drake

    A tremendous disappointment, especially given the shimmering praise the book garners on all sides. I realize I’m at odds with the world in judging this book harshly, and I realize there may yet be some dimension of brilliance here that I’m just not seeing, but grant me this, it’s not for lack of trying. No other novel have I ever laid down without a backward glance within a few dozen pages of the end, certain at last that the great payoff for my eight hundred pages of patience was never going to

    A tremendous disappointment, especially given the shimmering praise the book garners on all sides. I realize I’m at odds with the world in judging this book harshly, and I realize there may yet be some dimension of brilliance here that I’m just not seeing, but grant me this, it’s not for lack of trying. No other novel have I ever laid down without a backward glance within a few dozen pages of the end, certain at last that the great payoff for my eight hundred pages of patience was never going to come. Here’s the big plot spoiler: nothing at all happens in this book. Not “nothing” in a loaded, John Cage way, just nothing, as when the author cannot deliver on his heady promises but publishes a book anyhow. I actually think it’s kind of important to call bullshit on all the approbation the book receives.

    The two fundamental failures in the book are its main character and its central device, the Game itself. Both failures are drearily total, and each is all the more of a letdown for the breathless, never-ending clamor of hype both within and without the book’s pages.

    The book starts right out with the declaration of Joseph Knecht’s pivotal importance, as the greatest player the Game has ever had, after whose career the history of the Game could never be the same. This is repeated ceaselessly throughout, in narrative asides. Meanwhile, we watch a pleasant, unassuming, talented young boy as he is handpicked by a professor, becomes a promising student whose great potential is remarked on by everyone he meets, and moves on to become a professor at a young age. He is indeed the youngest ever to become Magister Ludi, so at least that should earn him a mention in the history books. We are told, I think precisely once, that when he runs a game, it’s a good one. And then he gets old; along the way he meets some people and has some conversations. And then he dies in a swimming accident, and then we riffle through some of his personal papers until the book is over. Even his youthful writings, a strange little coda to his own life story, echo the pattern of fervent affirmation of the importance of a character—plainly himself in thin disguise, but now being described, just as fawningly, in his own voice—who goes on to do nothing much.

    If in fact Knecht ever does anything of greater historical importance than being generally agreeable and good at what he does, it is not told to us. His life is a dull blank, undeserving of a biography at all, especially when at least three other characters go by who might actually have made good reading. Consider the strangely beatified Music Master, whose unexpectedly mystical transcendence of humanity Knecht merely witnesses when it comes along late in the book; that might be worthy of history. Or Knecht’s boyhood rival, a fiery young student who leaves the academic world and is reunited with Knecht later on one of the protagonist’s vanishingly rare ventures outside his ivory tower; his relationship to the Game is complex and troubled, but this barely ruffles the surface of Knecht’s complacency. Or there is the Sinophile who draws Knecht into a dialogue with Chinese history and literature, who gets to deliver the book’s most interesting challenge: when Knecht seeks his assistance in bringing the symbology of the I Ching into the vocabulary of the Game (much easier, you’d think, than it would have been to encapsulate French poetry or organic chemistry, since the I Ching is already encoded in a set of symbols easily printed on beads), his new mentor smiles and says you can build a garden in the world, but good luck fitting the entire world inside your garden. What’s this? A character within the Glass Bead Game dismissing the Game itself as far lesser than some other symbol system? Here, now, we have the potential for a meaty examination of this Game thing, which we deserve after putting up with so much talk about it. But Knecht just shrugs and goes about his business, and there will be no exposition upon either system. Because the Game is the other aching nullity at the heart of the book; there’s nothing there.

    Hesse was inspired to write, beyond doubt, by the legitimately awesome notion of the Game. He imagines a symbol system within which all academic disciplines can be encoded, and can interact with each other, like a conversion chart for all fields of knowledge. Within this system, all concepts are encoded on beads, and it seems any of them can meaningfully combine with any other, such that wild new ideas emerge in the interplay. Here is the complex discourse wherein some kind of game, some competition or contest, can flourish, a game of all human learning, ranging like lightning from one discipline to another, referencing everything. Only a rarefied kind of academic could hope to understand such a game, let alone play it competitively. And the book is set within the cloistered academy where these super-scholars are trained.

    It’s a sweeping, fascinating idea. It’s enough, without adding much of anything else, to drive a really memorable short story. But Hesse wanted it to crown a towering edifice, worthy of the sense of weight and magnitude that was, in fact, only the subject of the idea rather than its dimensions. By which I mean: it was a vague little slip of an idea

    something vast and weighty, rather than actually being a vast and weighty idea. But Hesse fooled himself, and in his excitement he determined to write a very long novel, and that was a mistake from which there could be no recovery.

    The fatal problem is that Hesse wilts instantly before the task of filling in any kind of detail about what the game was and how it worked. He hasn’t a clue. Inspired by his book, several people have gone on to design more or less playable games to match their impressions of the game he only alludes to—you can find them on the internet if you look around—but he never does. And the more ambient suspense the author generates by promising a brilliant reality, without ever showing even a flickering corner of it, the worse the bland filler starts to smell when it all gets stale. Mind you, I know it’s too much to ask for him to generate a practical game that lives up to his vision. But we don’t need him to do that. He need only sketch some part of it, fill in a detail here and a detail there that his characters can make part of their workaday conversations. He does need to do something, though, and it needs to pass muster as at least a tantalizing beginning of the thing itself. One example, perhaps, of a specific bead that represents something from the science of biology; what is written or drawn on the bead? What might be one instance of that bead’s being played in answer to a bead representing some architectural concept? That would be enough. He makes frequent mention of music—indeed the deification of music, common among writers, is so relentless here as to become a minor problem in its own right—but no sign of how it relates to any other field. Of course, a writer needs to be able to let the reader fill in empty spaces that the story only sketches with spare gestures. But the gestures need to be the beginning of something worthy.

    In the event, that one game—”composed” by Knecht during his tenure as Top Official in Gameland—gives us just enough detail to make clear, after most of the book has gone by, that what’s actually happening here is a solo show. Knecht has composed a complex exercise in advance, and now the other players are just acting it out, perhaps filling in some details at their own discretion but abiding by a predetermined structure. Our one glimpse of the practical nature of the game has all the fanfare of a whoopee cushion. The Game isn’t actually a game. Nobody's playing. There are no objectives. It’s some sort of abstruse, very quiet performance art.

    A long book full of portentious self-promotion but with nothing to say. An elaborately wrapped present with no gift inside. A big fat nothing. Not the nothing of the Buddhist, who longs for nothing and seeks it, but that of the Wizard of Oz—a nothing that noisily proclaims itself to be everything.

  • Becky

    I like Herman Hesse. I like Siddhartha, I remember liking Steppenwolf, I like huge sagas that probe the mind. I

    like weighty wordy novels where nothing in particular happens.

    I did not like the Glass Bead Game.

    I really did not like the Glass Bead Game.

    And I don’t understand how people did.

    First of all, I’ve gone through a lot of reviews. I was about fifty percent through the book, bored out of my mind, and I started reading reviews trying to get some motivation to finish this tome. I did

    I like Herman Hesse. I like Siddhartha, I remember liking Steppenwolf, I like huge sagas that probe the mind. I

    like weighty wordy novels where nothing in particular happens.

    I did not like the Glass Bead Game.

    I really did not like the Glass Bead Game.

    And I don’t understand how people did.

    First of all, I’ve gone through a lot of reviews. I was about fifty percent through the book, bored out of my mind, and I started reading reviews trying to get some motivation to finish this tome. I didn’t find ANY. First of all, everyone that gave it lots of stars either didn’t write a review, or wrote a review that’s literally a re-writing of the synopisis from Wikipedia. I’m not trying to insinuate that they didn’t really read it, or that they didn’t really understand it, or even that they are trying to seem cool by giving a Nobel winning book a good star rating--- I’m not insinuating that, but I have to wonder. I didn’t hardly find a single review that actually illuminated what that person actually enjoyed about the book.

    Most reviews were along the lines of “This story follows the life of Josef Knecht, who rose to become the youngest Master Ludi.” Or “This book talks about elitism, intellectualism, and touches on Buddhism.”

    Ok? But what did any of you THINK about that? I mean, I know WHAT the book is about, I want to know if you enjoyed the presentation of those arguments, the story, did you agree or disagree?

    There was nothing about that. So, at 50% through, I stopped reading. I have a rule, I usually give a book 100 pages to grab me, if it’s a long book I’ll give it 200. I gave this book more than a fair shake, I even looked for reasons to keep going, but I don’t think there are any.

    There is nothing in this book, that wasn’t a total rehash of every other book that Hesse wrote. So, here is my opinion- this is a dull drab affair in which nothing happens. I feel that there were some really interesting things that COULD have happened, or hell, even a treatise just on the ideals of the Glass Bead Game itself would’ve been more interesting. I love the idea that the GBG is a synthesis of the knowledge and culture of mankind throughout history. The Glass Bead Game is a design that is supposed to move this story forward, that is supposed to be the gravitational pull at the center of the book that all the words orbit around. Instead it’s nothing that’s nearly so forceful; it’s shrouded in mystery, but not the interesting-leaves-you-wondering-days-after-the-book kind, it’s the oh-you-couldn’t-be-bothered-to-actually-figure-it-out kind. That leaves Josef as the driving force of the book, but the only time he comes to life is when the actually interesting side-characters come back into the book, like the Master of Music. Josef is just a receptacle for the intervention of the other characters.

    And, if you honestly DID, enjoy it, for the love of god tell me why, without summarizing the book. If I hear a good enough argument I’ll go back and finish it, but at this point, I have no faith that it gets any better, and I cannot force myself into it.

    Read Hesse’s other books, they are much more enjoyable. If you want something to touch your soul read Siddhartha.

  • Jan-Maat

    I saw that a Goodreader commented on another review that they felt this was a book for young people, which caught my attention with a jolt because I had barely finished thinking that this was plainly a book written by an old man. Which it was. These are in no way contradictory notions, they even sit together as one of the themes of the book:

    I saw that a Goodreader commented on another review that they felt this was a book for young people, which caught my attention with a jolt because I had barely finished thinking that this was plainly a book written by an old man. Which it was. These are in no way contradictory notions, they even sit together as one of the themes of the book:

    (p207)

    Since I have had a second introduction it follows that I ought to really have a first one. So here it is.

    Because we have a game in the title and playing this game is of some significance in the novel then that might be a place to start. Another review mentioned the possibility that the game was a form of pure mathematics, while reading it occurred to me that it was a way of talking about fiction. A game the reader and author play by themselves and that the author plays with the reader, not all games are equally amusing as one notices. That led to the conclusion that the game was another game - a McGuffin. A thing that serves to get Cary Grant from New York to the middle of a wheat field so somebody can try to machine gun him from an aeroplane because somebody else thought it might look good on celluloid. We simply have to accept it has no greater meaning than to be intrinsically meaningful to the characters even if no machine guns are involved

    . Or as one of the characters in one of the embedded stories might say "illusion, illusion!"

    We're kind of warned from early on that this is going to be a playful kind of book. The author presents himself merely as the ever so humble editor of a biography written in the future of a fictional person. Then we get an introduction from the 'actual author' who denies the possibly of biography and tells us that we won't tell us about the game before telling us about the game, and who in passing mentions the absence of various sources, before leaping into the story in which the purported author seems to have omniscient knowledge of the imaginary subject of the story. Finally we get some poems and short stories which we understand have been written by the subject of this biography and which thematically stand in some relation to the main text.

    No.

    Although I did laugh and once cry while reading the second of the short stories which is my favourite part of the whole book, apart from the ending of the main part of the text.

    Further I noted that since the books on their shelf were fairly well compressed that some the pages had a fraternal desire to stay together, and significantly, that I wasn't much troubled by this.

    I don't much like shoulds, maybe you have read it, maybe you will read it, maybe you won't. To misquote Voltaire - when a rat on one of his Majesty's grain ships dies on the way from Egypt to Constantinople is the Sultan much troubled?

    I'm not sure when I first read this book, or why. Rereading I found it uncompelling, but also I had the strong suspicion that I had absorbed a fair amount of the book into myself as thirsty soil sucks in water the first time round, and that I had creatively misremembered bits of it, specifically the second of the short stories which in grossly modified form I had told as a rambling anecdote on several occasions

    . Perhaps this is no more than to say I was not in the right state of mind to have read this novel at this time, but reading this novel may well prompt or encourage such a way of thinking about the world

    .

    Just as Sancho Panza taught that thee is a relationship between the story and the manner in which it is told so we might assume there is a relationship between how you start and how or indeed if you get to finish a tale. One of the themes in this novel is world history, the relationship between a plant and the soil it grows in. Ba! Maybe I first read this book when I was a student. When I was a student, I had no grey hairs, and also it seemed to me that people repeated the image of the ivory tower when talking about universities and the studious life, or maybe I was just more attuned to that kind of speech as the time, to my amusement as I wandered

    through a variety of jobs and joblessness it struck me that each one was itself an ivory tower with its own God (not always Mammon) hierarchies and Priesthoods, sacred assumptions, peculiar idiocies, and character, admittedly one could regard professions like accountancy and the law as bridges between these towers, providing some helpful common concepts like illegality and bankruptcy, but these too were worlds of their own, journeying between worlds, as occasionally one has to, is like being an astronaut

    Whoops I'm lost in reminiscences again. Anyway, from a certain perspective the entire landscape is covered in ivory towers

    .

    What I was going to say, before I interrupted myself, was that this novel was finished in 1943 and imagines an ideal Utopian society, naturally the other side of a utopian society is a dystopian one. And a place that calls itself Castalia, brings to mind Castile, the land of castles, and one has to wonder quite what do they want to lock themselves up away from? What threatens them, why are they so defensive? Indeed reading

    (p81) I could imagine O'Brien from

    saying much the same kind of thing to one of his protégées - but then one of the themes of this book is the reconciliation and interrelationship of apparently contradictory elements!

    What I was going to say, before I interrupted myself, was that this novel is a German novel written in what might have been a German century. It is a kind of alternative for Germany, a continuation of Thomas Mann's vaunted unpoliticism at times when politics was pretty unavoidable. Empire, Socialism, War, Cultural upheaval, Fascism, More war

    . So what do you do, such was part of the soil that Hesse grew in, he knew Theodore Heuss who had been a follower of Max Weber

    Hesse had been close to C.G.Jung, so there is psychology, the iChing, alchemy, God, spiritual growth

    . Both Weber and Jung deeply interested in "the east" as offering ways out of the steel cage of the

    of the development of "the west" so this novel features yoga and meditation as well as everything else, Reincarnation might be a theme too. Hesse's utopia is an alternative Germany, federalism has led to a purely academic federal state, probably in the south-west and apparently subsidised by the rest of the Union. The novel plays with the relationships between the master and the apprentice, the teacher and the taught, the seduction or corruption of the young by the old as well as the reconciliation or alignment of apparently opposite elements. An old Imperialist may well have written that 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet'. Hesse is a bit more sensible and admits that once you have east, then you have to have west, and perhaps north and south too, that these things are separate, distinct and an inseparable whole all at the same time and that such a scheme can be carried across to analogous situations, which possibly can be represented in a Game which despite being the title of the book, is never explicitly described. The principal character experiences his Castalia directly, then formally has to address himself to it and argue for it consciously as a utopia, then has to experience it as dystopia, then has to go forth and inherit the earth:

    (p257). The short stories in which the main character might be imagining other versions of himself, might be arguing that the reconciliation of opposites or the conflicting tugs we experience in life may not be resolvable in one life, but if one could or does live many lives then perhaps on average, they might even out, but one might need a certain set of skills to appreciate that in any one life in particular. Writing and reading novels might be one of those skills.

    This exists on the great, sprawling family tree of books, reading I felt there was something I thought that I could mention in a review with regards to Tolstoy, but I can't remember what, the dialogue in the second of the two short stories reminded me, particularly in the childlike nature of much sin, of the Grand Inquisitor in

    - another novel that the author claims he didn't write with a supposedly limited narrator who has apparently omniscient knowledge.

    But as I said, I didn't fall off my chair laughing.

    Notes from reading

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