Hermann Hesse’s The Prodigy was published in 1905; its original title was Beneath the Wheel (Untem Rad); it was his second novel, following Peter Camenzind. He was twenty-nine when it was published.
The story concerns a gifted boy, Hans Giebenrath who passes an exam for acceptance in a seminary in Maulbronn. Prior to this and during his boarding there his education is exclusively focused on increasing his knowledge. Personal development does not figure in the syllabus. For three years his teachers, the vicar, his father and the headmaster urged him on unceasingly, allowing him not a moment’s rest. He suffered from headaches.
‘He had almost forgotten everything he knew of that sport (fishing) and during the past year he had wept bitterly when it had been forbidden on account of his examination.’ (p10)
After the exams, and before he went to the seminary, he was allowed some freedom: ‘… he was eager to catch up on the gay months he had missed with all possible haste and become once more a small, completely ordinary and irresponsible schoolboy.’ (p30)
At the seminary, Hans begins a close friendship with Hermann Heilner who provides an outlet for Hans, introducing him to poetry. ‘… but now he became aware of the treacherous power of fine-sounding words, alluring imagery and soothing rhymes, and his respect for this newly-opened world had grown, with his admiration of his friend, into a single shared feeling’ (p72).
Unfortunately, Heilner is expelled. As a result, Hans’ academic performance deteriorates with the onset of psychological problems. Once at home, Hans is adrift, with no friends from his past since he spent his childhood devoted to scholastic study. He showed much promise yet is considered a failure, and feels this acutely. When he is apprenticed as a blacksmith, it seems possible that he might at last find some fulfilment through labour. Sadly, it is not to be. The ending is not a happy one.
At the time of writing this book, which contains reminiscences of Hesse’s own past – he was expelled from that seminary – similar novels and stories in Germany addressed the issue of sensitive pupils crushed by educational tyranny in public lycées and private and military boarding schools.
Inevitably, as this is literary fiction and written so long ago, it is ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’: in effect, omniscient narrative, and indeed lyrical in this translation.
Hans probably didn’t have much of a chance, really: his father is described thus: His inner life was in every respect that of a philistine. The more sensitive side of his character had long been overlaid with the dust of neglect and now consisted of little more than the traditional rough and ready acknowledgement of the family, pride in his son and an occasional generous impulse towards the poor.’ (p5)
Hans was egged on by the local clergy, also. Interestingly, hearing about Bishops today who openly doubt is nothing new, it seems: ‘… the vicar – according to rumour – was one of the new school of thought and reputed not to believe even in the Resurrection.’ (p12) Hesse’s riposte might be: ‘For life is stronger than death and belief more powerful than doubt.’ (p37)
There are a number of bucolic passages, evoking beautiful images; in the early pages, they’re lyrical and full of hope for the future, yet towards the end of the book they become sinister: ‘The decline of the year, the silent fall of the leaves, the russet-coloured fields, the thick early morning mists, the ripe, tired dying of the vegetation drove him, as it does all sick people, into heavy hopeless moods and thoughts of deep sadness. He felt the desire to wither with it…’ (p119)
‘When a tree is pollarded, it puts out new shoots at the base, and in the same way a soul, too, which was ruined in the bud, finds its way back to the springtime of beginnings and prescient childhood… roots thrive quickly, full of sap, but it is only a semblance of life and never again will it become a healthy tree.’ (p111)
To counter these depressing images, here’s a quotation from Hesse’s book My Belief (1974): ‘Among the joys mentioned above are those granted us by our daily contact with nature. Our eyes, above all those misused, overstrained eyes of modern man, can be, if only we are willing, an inexhaustible source of pleasure… Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature … My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation for daily relief and disburdenment, not the greater ones.’ Essay, ‘On Little Joys’, 1905.