Of World Fame and World-Weariness

Hermann Hesse, Erwin.

Published in Olten in 1965. Achter Oltner Liebhaber Druck, commissioned by William Matheson.

Literary critics did not love him, but millions of readers around the globe did. Works such as Demian, Siddhartha and Steppenwolf became cult and Hermann Hesse one of the most widely read German-speaking authors ever. Although the decision was quite controversial, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 consolidated his legacy once and for all. It goes without saying that an author of this calibre is a must-have in any well-stocked library of German-language classics. That is why two works by Hesse are the beginning and the end of a small, fine Swiss series published by book lovers from Olten.


Modern Bibliophilia

Olten, 1936. In this little Swiss town of no world literary significance whatsoever, an association was founded. The VOB, Vereinigung Oltner Bücherfreunde (Olten Book Lovers Association). The commercial employee William Matheson and seven other book lovers wanted to bring great literature to the small town. They aimed to promote “the love and understanding for books with valuable content and beautiful appearance” and to publish “exemplary prints with due regard to the art of bookbinding”. The small publishing house that was run from a 4-bedroom apartment published exactly 100 works between 1936 and 1965, plus 22 special and bibliophile editions. The publisher Matheson also built an impressive collection of autographs over the course of his life.

What is rather unusual about the Olten book project is that the bibliophile interest was entirely focused on modern literature. The time frame covered by Matheson’s collection starts relatively late with the Baroque period and continues through the Classical and Romantic eras to contemporary writers, a field he was particularly interested in. The publisher made it his business to present the finest and best works of contemporary German-language literature. Thus, for a work to be included in the program it had to meet the following criteria: the authors must still be alive, they must write in German and the work must be a first publication or first edition in book form.

Hermann Hesse in Rüschlikon in 1929.

Matheson, Hesse and their Love of the Incomplete

Hermann Hesse was one of these important, contemporary authors. The VOB series published new texts of Hesse every few years. He even had the special honour of framing the project given that both No. 1 and No. 99 are publications of his texts. It certainly played a role in this that Hesse and Matheson were not only connected by their love for reading but also by their passion for collecting books – Hesse too collected autographs and made book collecting a subject in numerous texts. The Hesse volumes of the Olten Library include Der Novalis. Aus den Papieren eines Altmodischen (1940), Feuerwerk (1946), Freunde. Erzählung (1957), and Ärzte. Ein paar Erinnerungen (1963).

You might be wondering why you have never heard of these works. They certainly are not among Hesse’s bestsellers. And that is intentional. Matheson did not want to publish texts and authors that were already known, but those who were not (yet). He had a preference for unpublished texts, fragments and unfinished works. This is another connection between him and Hesse, who wrote in his preface to the first Olten edition: “To a small circle of book lovers and kind readers it might be interesting to occasionally encounter an unfinished work, a torso, alongside completed works of an author that are accessible to everyone.” This first edition was – you can already guess it – of course an unfinished piece of writing by Hesse. Das Haus der Träume (House of Dreams) was published in a small edition of only 100 copies exclusively in the VOB series. Due to its rarity it is now a real treasure for Hesse collectors.

Postface by Ninon Hesse, Hermann Hesse’s third wife.

(No) Paradise: The Autobiographical Background of the Narrative

The present edition is also a text that had not been published earlier, it was discovered in Hesse’s estate and published in 1965 as an “Oltner Liebhaberdruck”, a bibliophile edition. There are many similarities between the setting and the plot of Erwin and the previously published novel Beneath the Wheel (1906), and both were inspired by actual experiences from the author’s childhood and youth. Already at an early age, it became apparent that Hesse, the son of a Protestant missionary family, was very gifted intellectually. He was supposed to pursue a career as a theologian and was sent to the theological seminary at the Maulbronn monastery. But Hesse rejected his parents’ plans. According to a now infamous quote, he wanted to become “either a poet or nothing at all”. He rebelled, did not follow school regulations, suffered from depressive moods and even attempted suicide, which resulted in his admission to a mental health hospital.

One cannot help but notice the striking similarities to his novel Beneath the Wheel. The highly gifted Hans Giebenrath, the tragic hero of the story, is repeatedly pushed to his limits by his teachers and parents and eventually collapses under the continuous pressure. First he leaves the theological seminar to become a mechanic; then he is found dead in the river after a night of drinking. The question of whether it was an accident or a suicide remains unanswered. In this way, the novel illustrates how a young person is destroyed by the ambition of his environment, how he “gets caught beneath the wheel” in an educational system where individuality does not have a place.

The Maulbronn monastery, view of the monastery church with entrance hall (“Paradise”). Elke Wetzig/ CC BY-SA 3.0.

The subject matter must have stayed with Hesse for a long time, for the story of Erwin starts in a monastery too – a clear reference to the Maulbronn monastery, whose entrance hall is also called ‘Paradise’: “Like a dark guard tower, the old monastery lies between the playgrounds of my childhood and the gardens and the wilderness of my youth. I see its walls and columns standing defiantly, casting long shadows over my youthful life, and yet I must smile and my heart cannot help but beat faster when my inner eye spots the firm walls of the ‘Paradise’ and the arches of the Gothic cloisters.” Even this brief passage shows how much the place influenced the author, or rather the hero of his story: the “dark guard tower” looms menacingly over the playgrounds of his childhood and the walls and columns cast “long shadows”. Nevertheless, not everything is bad in this gloomy setting as the narrator cannot help but smile despite everything.

Unhappiness as a Driving Force of Creative Work

In a way this scene is symptomatic of Hesse’s whole life. He repeatedly suffered from physical and mental illness, his first two marriages ended after just a few years, the children were sent to a children’s home. Hesse was restless, always searching for something. Settling down was not easy for him. No sooner had he settled in the countryside with his wife and children than he was drawn out into the world again. He travelled to India, did all kinds of things there to find out more about himself and the purpose of life: veganism, therapeutic fasting, climbing naked. If it helped? Nobody knows. And yet for Hesse, all these shadows were an integral part of his life, he did not want to miss them: “If my life were not an agonizing, sorrowful experiment, if I were not constantly on the brink of disaster, feeling the nothingness below me, my life would not have its purpose. And I would not have been able to create all my poems, even the pleasant and friendly ones.”


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Beneath the Wheel demonstrates what happens when education goes terribly wrong. Centuries earlier, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau had already thought about how to do things better and raise children with more freedom.

Hans Conzett, the former owner of the book presented in this article, was one of the founders of the Manesse Library of World Literature. We presented select volumes of this series for the MoneyMuseum.

Olten was not the only town with a particular liking for beautiful books. Here you can read about an artist edition of André and Pierre Gonin’s publishing house in Lousanne.

You want to know more about Hesse? We summarized the most important things of Steppenwolf for you.

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