Hermann Hesse - Rosshalde
When the Veraguth's bought Rosshalde, it was “an abandoned old manor with overgrown garden paths, moss-covered benches, cracked stone steps, and a tangled, neglected park”. Ten years later the manor is clean and beautiful, but the marriage is dead and John Veraguth's eldest son has had his mind poisoned, used as a weapon to hurt his father. Veraguth's heart has dwindled until all he cares for is his son, Pierre. His paintings, world famous and sold at increasingly ridiculous prices, mean nothing, and even his decades-old friendship with Otto Burkhardt is becoming strained.
Otto is our surrogate as we come to learn of the inhabitants in the Rosshalde manor, yet the tale is narrated largely from the point of view of Johann Veraguth. This has the effect of allowing us both the luxury of being introduced to the characters in a natural setting – the introduction of an old friend – and the important core of the novel, which is Veraguth's heart and soul. It quickly becomes apparent that Veraguth is in danger of losing his humanity and his art. Otto, upon entering Veraguth's studio, where he both lives and sleeps, thinks to himself that: “So this was how these pictures, hung in the places of honor in galleries all over the world and sold at high prices, were made; they were made in rooms that knew only work and self-denial, where one could find nothing festive, nothing useless, no cherished baubles or bric-a-brac, no fragrance of wine or flowers, no memory of women.” Veraguth, we know both from Otto's observations and his own sad thoughts, has pared himself down to work, sleep, and an obsessive desire that his second son continue to love him.
An interesting juxtaposition occurs between the emotionally stifling relationship Veraguth shares with his wife Adele, compared to the beauty and harmony of Hesse's description of the flora and fauna surrounding Rosshalde. Hesse is willing to describe at length the beauty of a flower, the joy his characters feel in watching the sun reflect from a window-pane, and the harmony felt by his characters living in pleasant surroundings. This clashes nicely and effectively with the constricting relationships of the house, where everything is felt but nothing is said.
Hesse is careful to avoid using Pierre as a cheap plot device to build 'characterisation'. Instead, Pierre is simply a wonderful, lovely, though somewhat self-absorbed seven year-old. In short, an ordinary child. Johann Veraguth and his wife both love Pierre for qualities he actually possesses, and neither really minds that Pierre loves them (reasonably) equally. In a similar vein, Veraguth's wife is not simply a shrew or a harridan – she is in fact simply a woman who loved, once, but no longer does. Her lack of love comes not from malice but from that worse place known as disappointment. Avoiding an 'evil' or 'nasty' wife ensures that there is never really much in the way of action or plot development, but instead there is plenty of psychological exploration. Veraguth's wife knows as much as he that Pierre is all that is keeping him at Rosshalde, and that Rosshalde is slowly destroying all of their soul's, but there isn't any more that she can do about it than he. Veraguth's eldest son, as a teenager, is unable to accept nuance and creates a nuisance of himself by declaring loudly and passionately his hatred for his father, his solutions to his mother's problems, and his disgust toward Pierre.
The problem of Veraguth's eldest son is encapsulated within a discussion between Veraguth and Otto, a few days before Otto leaves. Veraguth tells Otto, “Meanwhile, Albert had grown out of babyhood. We both loved him very much and worrying over him kept us together. It wasn't until he was seven or eight that I began to be jealous and to fight for him – exactly as I fight over Pierre with her now...I looked on in constant anguish as he grew cooler and cooler toward me and more and more attached to his mother.” Veraguth goes on to explain that Albert became very ill, which brought the couple together long enough for Pierre to be born. Now, in Pierre, we see the same battle being fought, but this time Veraguth is not content to lose.
But things occur as they must, and symbolic characters are capable of walking the paths set by their symbolism, and little else. Pierre falls sick, the couple draws close, and – Veraguth rebels. He will not continue the cycle, not if it means he loses Pierre. Even if another child springs forth, Pierre is his most loved son. During this, Otto and Veraguth exchange letters, with Veraguth more and more convinced that he needs to leave Rosshalde and travel East, where he can recapture what is missing from his soul.
Rosshalde is an important crossover book from Hesse's earlier work, to his later novels, which were heavily influenced by Eastern mysticism and the battle every aesthetically-minded individual must win if he would retain his heart, his soul, and his personal integrity. The novel was written shortly after Hesse himself returned from the East, and published in 1914 as Europe descended into its first round of carnage and madness for the century.
The novel presents the difficult question of just how much a person's soul is worth. Of course there is no general answer, but we learn what the answer might be for a man in Veraguth's position. Financial security, artistic success, and an outwardly 'perfect' life are shown to be hollow victories, and even distracting accomplishments when compared to the damage they cause on one's self. Hesse's use of an omniscient narrator with the power to dip in and out of his characters – though mostly Veraguth, all of the prime participants have their thoughts shown – allows for a deep sympathy to be felt for every character. There are no bad people, or even bad events, but the sum of the parts is so large that it threatens to topple them all. Pierre, sadly, is the sacrificial lamb, but his fate is what it must be, if a soul is to be redeemed at all. Rosshalde is a strong novel, well told showing the development of themes that would be greatly expanded in The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmund.
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