by Hermann Hesse
"That dream of mine which had shown me the splendor of life and intellect came true each day and warmed my heart with ambition, joy, and youthful vanity."(p 58)
Peter Camenzind is usually classified as a novel of education or bildungsroman. However I see two different fictional strands woven into this narrative: the story of a spiritual journey and a picaresque nature. Thus a simple and even mythic poetical story is filled with complexity that welcomes the reader willing and interested in exploring the meaning of Camenzind's education. Beginning with the myths of his childhood and continuing for about two hundred pages over eight chapters Peter narrates his experiences. It is a narrative style that is familiar to any who have read Demian or Steppenwolf.
The novel opens with the phrase, "In the beginning was the myth. God, in his search for self-expression, invested the souls of Hindus, Greeks, and Germans with poetic shapes and continues to invest each child's soul with poetry every day."(p 1) The novel is purely poetical, and its protagonist in time aspires to become a poet who invests the lives of men with reality in its most beautiful of forms. I found the story reminiscent of those of Siddhartha, Goldmund, and Harry Haller. Like them, Peter suffers deeply and undergoes many intellectual, physical, and spiritual journeys. Through these journeys he experiences the diverse landscapes of Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland, as well as the breadth of emotions that humans experience during their lives. In a later stage of his life, he even embodies the ideal of St. Francis as he cares for a cripple.
Peter Camenzind, as a youth, leaves his mountain village with a great ambition to experience the world. I was reminded of Stephen Dedalus setting out for life at the end of The Portrait on an Artist as a Young Man. He heads to the university to escape his earlier life and eventually meets and falls in love with the painter, Erminia Aglietti and becomes a close friend to a young pianist named Richard. Greatly saddened because of the latter's death, he takes up wandering to soak up the diverse experiences of life.
Ever faced with the vicissitudes of life, Peer continually takes up alcohol as a means to confront the harshness and inexplicable strangeness that he encounters. He also meets and falls in love with another woman, Elizabeth, even though she will later marry someone else. Nevertheless his continuing journey through Italy changes him in many respects and changes his ability to love life and see beauty within all things. It is a new friendship with Boppi, an invalid, that helps him truly experience what it means to love other human beings. It seems that he comes to see a wonderful reflection of humanity in its best and noblest forms in Boppi, and the two forge an unbreakable friendship.
This is a novel that begins to explore some of the great themes of Hermann Hesse's later work. It is interesting to see these early stirrings and look forward to reading and rereading his later work with a deeper perspective.
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