Hermann Hesse - Knulp
Knulp has from an early age been a wanderer. His domain is the forest and meadows of Germany, and his friends are everywhere. He has no home and no wife, but nor does he have any desire for either. He loves freedom, while recognising that even the free aren’t absent from life’s struggles. Knulp is an early work of German Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse’s, one that sees him developing themes he would later go on to explore in immense depth and detail in his mature works.
Knulp is the type of fellow who has a friend wherever he goes, and if he doesn’t, then he soon will. He can talk to anyone about what interests them; he knows just enough about every profession or interest to coax his interlocutor into revealing their thoughts and emotions.
Hesse introduces Knulp as follows,
The life certified by this official passport was a product of Knulp's invention, and with infinite art he spun out the fragile thread of this pseudo-career. In reality, though he did little that was expressly prohibited, he carried on the illegal and disdained existence of a tramp. Of course, he would hardly have been so unmolested in his lovely fiction if the police had not been well disposed toward him…He had seldom been arrested and never convicted of theft or mendicancy, and he had highly respected friends everywhere. Consequently, he was indulged by the authorities very much as a nice-looking cat is indulged in a household, and left free to carry on an untroubled, elegant, splendidly aristocratic and idle existence.
In 'Early Spring', Knulp visits his friend Emil Rothfuss, who has recently married. The couple seems happy enough, but soon the wife finds herself drawn to Knulp's carefree spirit. Knulp, however, finds a young servant girl from a nearby house more appealing.
She may have been eighteen or nineteen, not very tall, with an attractive olive complexion, brown eyes, and thick brown hair. Her pleasant, quiet face did not look exactly happy; all in all, she seemed rather woebegone as she sat there on her hard green box, and Knulp, who knew the world and young girls as well, had a pretty fair idea that the poor thing hadn't left her native village very long ago with her box, and was homesick.
Knulp strikes up a conversation (something notably missing from his non-existent relationship with Emil's wife) with the young girl. They discuss her hometown of Achthausen, and soon the young girl, too, has fallen for Knulp. Both women find his freedom appealing, but they both, from the very first, seek to restrict his freedom by placing restrictions of affection and expectation upon him. Knulp is a free spirit in the worst and best sense of the concept. He rejects society not out of spite but because it suits him better to wander where he will when he wishes. Knulp's lifestyle is not a lifestyle – it is who he is. He has the best relations with those who expect no more from him than what he is prepared to give, which is to say good conversation, the pleasure of sharing a meal or their home, and a chance to lighten one's heart with stories of places near and far. Knulp is, in his own way, a sage of sorts, and as with all sages one of the duties he places upon himself is that of dispensing advice and sharing the wisdom of his wandering ways:
No, Knulp was right in doing what his nature demanded and what few others could do, in speaking to strangers like a child and winning their hearts, in saying pleasant things to ladies of all ages, and making Sundays out of weekdays. You could only take him as he was, and when he needed a roof over his head, it was a pleasure and an honour to give him one.
The way I see it, everybody's got to figure out for himself what's true and what life is like; those are the things you can't learn from any book.
When a man boasted of his happiness or his virtue, they usually didn't amount to much.
You could observe people's folly, you could laugh at them or feel sorry for them, but you had to let them go their own way.
The second story, ‘My Recollections of Knulp’, begins on a strange note of happiness and sadness. "In those days I was young and gay, and Knulp was still alive." This story is more openly narrated, with reflections and asides inserted into the text. In 'Early Spring', the authorial presence was there, but it was not strong. Here, the narrator is quite chatty, and what's more seems to be in a reflective mood, willing to indulge in fond memories of Knulp.
Knulp's decision to become a vagabond allows him the luxury to think about and discuss higher concepts such as aesthetics and the place of art, the importance of death to those who are living, and the absence of it for those who are not, and other such matters. He is less constrained by the material than the rest of us, with the attendant capability to transcend matters of money and property and other mean things. He says to the narrator of the second story,
In the end, we all have a life of our own that we can't share with anyone else. You can see that when a friend or loved one dies. You weep and grieve for a day, a month, or even a year, but then the dear departed is dead and gone, and the person in the coffin might just as well be some homeless unknown apprentice.
Alas, Knulp's itinerant lifestyle extends to matters of the mind, too. The narrator notes that,
though he had read a great deal, Tolstoy for instance, he was not always able to distinguish between sound and unsound reasoning, and he himself sensed as much. He spoke of learned men as a gifted child speaks of adults; he had to admit that they were stronger and better equipped than he, but he despised them for making no proper use of their learning and for solving no riddles with all their wisdom.
The third and last story is called, fittingly, 'The End'. The two other stories were concerned with death in a tangential manner, but here it comes to the fore. ‘The End’ is about Knulp’s end, and the recollections and regrets it brings to him as it approaches. An old friend, a doctor, brings him home one night and they talk, or mostly Knulp talks, in sad and knowing tones about life and childhood, and how things turn out more wrong than you ever thought they could. He notes, “There’s nothing much wrong with me, and what there is, no doctor can cure.” Later, Knulp recognises that, if he were to polish his shoes, then they would last a good month or two longer – longer, then, than he himself. His shoes will be worn by someone else, or they won’t. But he, he knows, will be gone.
Toward the end of the story, after Knulp wanders his home town and remembers what was with the fondness age and one’s dying can provide, after he speaks with people from his past about matters of the present and memories of their times together, after attempting to locate, if only visually, the places he knew and friends he once had, Knulp, in winter, at night, wanders and begins to hallucinate and, as he dies, imagines a conversation with God. God tells him,
What’s the good of complaining? Don’t you see that whatever happened was good and right, that nothing should have been any different?
Knulp agrees, finally, that everything is as it should be, and then he dies, but not before the sun shines again. His philosophy, what it is, has been explored and resolved, at least to the satisfaction of Knulp and God (and, really, what else could one ask?)
Knulp is a strange and comforting book. There is no conflict, no plot, and Knulp's life is neither presented as desirable for one's own choosing, or shown as an extended admonition. No, Knulp simply is the way he is, and that is explored, and his friends are who they are, and that, too, is explored. Hesse carefully avoids incrimination on either side, and though he is clearly deeply fond of Knulp and his ilk, he never explicitly argues for Knulp, either.
I suppose in essence, then, Knulp is in fact a lengthy metaphor for the rather sad concept that life is lived alone, with each and every one of us incapable, really, of being understood by any other. And no thing, no matter how beautiful or right or good, will last, and indeed this mortality or inevitability of destruction becomes a large part of what gives this thing these positives. A love, however deep and true, need must die when either the two people are dead, or they have broken up. A girl's beauty must become a matron's worn face. A fine painting must fade and become lost. A song must be forgotten, and words never stay. Entropy is everything, and everything is, ultimately, doomed. Yet, for all this, Knulp is hardly a depressing tale. Knulp is a wonderful character, a joy, really, the way a child or a flower can be a joy – the joy of innocence and purity, in other words. I shall leave this review with a comment from Knulp on love, and by extension, life:
Every human being has his soul, he can't mix it with any other. Two people can meet, they can talk with one another, they can be close together. But their souls are like flowers, each rooted to its place. One can't go to another, because it would have to break away from its roots, and that it can't do. Flowers send out their scent and their seeds, because they would like to go to each other; but a flower can't do anything to make a seed go to its right place; the wind does that, and the wind comes and goes where it pleases.
Other works by Hermann Hesse under review:
"for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1946