Hermann Hesse’s short novel Rosshalde (1914) is told from an omniscient point of view. The painter Johann Veraguth bought the property and land Rosshalde and built a studio where he could avoid his wife, Adele. His older son was sent off to boarding school and his young son Pierre, aged seven, rarely crossed the studio’s threshold. Hesse was a painter and this book possesses autobiographic elements: his marriage began to disintegrate, partly due to his wife Maria’s mental issues. However, it’s quite possible his obsession with writing might have been a factor. Certainly, his character Veraguth only seemed content when painting. ‘… he recaptured the industrious tension which tolerates no digressions and concentrates all our energies on the work in hand.’ (p11) He was incapable of perceiving his poverty of existence: he strove to perfect his works of art, yet ‘bungled his attempts at love and life’ (p73)
Gradually we learn that he made difficult demands on his wife, nothing specific, but it harmed their relationship deeply. ‘… though she had ceased to love her husband she still regarded the loss of his affection as a sadly incomprehensible and undeserved misfortune.’ (p13) He admits, ‘I kept demanding the thing that Adele was unable to give…’ (p47)
Hesse illuminates scenes with a painter’s eye: ‘The little lake lay almost black in the total silence, the feeble light lay on the water like an infinitely thin membrane or a layer of fine dust.’ (p3) He was also a student of nature: ‘… the declining sun shone horizontally through the tree trunks and golden flames were kindled on the glassy wings of the dragonflies.’ (p27) And, in the drizzle, ‘the wet smooth trunks of the beech trees glistened black like cast iron.’ (p65)
A catalyst for change is the arrival of his friend Otto, who lives in India. He brings with him many captivating photographs of the exotic land.
[An aside: Strange coincidences abound in my selection of reading, it seems. I read March the Ninth by R.C. Hutchinson which concerned partisans in wartime Yugoslavia; next I read Alastair MacLean’s Partisans, about the same subject; yet random choice, entirely unplanned. Then I read Legacy by James Steel, where one of the protagonists is called Otto, and here in this book we have Otto!]
A friend has observed that the phrase ‘eyes narrowed’ is overused and perhaps not quite accurate. Here, Hesse avoids falling into that common trap: ‘Pierre froze. He closed his eyes except for a small slit and glared through his long lashes.’ The son’s relationship with the manservant Robert is at times amusing. Another writerly bugbear is ‘the movement of eyes, as if levitating entities in themselves – when it should be described as a gaze. Even Hesse (or his translator) succumbs: ‘(she) let her eyes roam idly over the flowers, the table, the room…’
Hesse deplored the strident nationalism leading up to the First World War; in protest against German militarism he exiled himself to Switzerland in 1919. While on a vacation at home, the eldest son Albert says he hates his father. His mother retorts: ‘Hate! Don’t use such words, they distort everything.’ As true today, as it was then.
It is quite possible that Hesse had seen or read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). He has Pierre say: ‘… when old people get older and older, they die in the end. I’d rather stay the way I am, and sometimes I’d like to be able to fly, and fly around the trees way up high, and in between the clouds. Then I’d laugh at everybody!’ (p39)
Illness in the home affects the family. Adele’s ‘balance had been shaken, she felt as though she were sitting on a limb that was being sawed off.’ (103) This is a turning point for the painter. ‘It was as though his life had become once more a limpid stream or river, driving resolutely in the direction assigned to it, whereas hitherto it had stagnated in the swampy lake of indecision.’
How he makes his decision, and what it is, is annoyingly hinted at in the blurb; an unforgiveable spoiler. Indeed, it reflects Hesse’s own actions of 1911. Whatever loss Veraguth experienced, he had his art.
Hesse wrote his last book in 1943, The Glass Bead Game; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946; he died in 1962, aged 85.