He once walked these cobblestoned paths of the Swiss hillside village. He once rested on the red bench to admire the beauty of the emerald green mountains overlooking Lake Lugano for inspirations. Numerous evenings he might have plotted his stories sipping wine at this quaint grotto. He now rests here after an intense life that constantly pushed him towards an inner search. He was the much-loved German author and he lived here.
Following the trail of the man behind “Siddhartha” one of my favorite books, in the sun-kissed Ticino, was like, getting up close and personal with his yearnings, his survival and his zest for the true meaning of life. The rain played hide and seek as a shady alleyway in Montagnola led me to a Russian styled house, Cassa Camuzzi, where Herman Hesse spent nearly twelve years of his life before he built his own house.
A lady in her thirties greeted me at the four-storey museum where once Herman lived. It has a cozy bookstore at the entrance filled books in his language as well as translated into English stacked on shelves and tables all around. It took me a while to pull myself from the ocean of his words towards the inner rooms of the museum. But eager to know who he was beyond his books I walked on.
A long corridor beside the staircase is where one can indulge in some innocent and cute photographs of little Herman and his family. His juvenile images make it difficult to believe his headstrong behaviors that disturbed his parents. Since his childhood, Hesse knew exactly what he wanted to become – “a poet or nothing at all”. He denied going to formal school and hence was admitted to a boy’s home where only on Sundays he was allowed to see his family.
As he turned fifteen he fled from the Evangelical Seminary and was found hiding in a field the next day. He mentioned suicidal thoughts in a letter dated March 20, 1892, and in May, he even attempted a suicide. He was going through some bipolar disorder and was placed in a mental institution.
But destiny soon took him to a bookshop in Tubingen as shown in a picture displayed in the Museum. In this town in Germany where he worked twelve hours a day, his writing career actually started. Post work and during Sundays he would spend time with books rather than with friends. Hesse studied theological writings, and later Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, and several texts on Greek mythology. In 1896, his poem “Madonna” appeared in a Viennese periodical.
Encouraged, he released his first small volume of poetry, Romantic Songs and then a collection of prose, entitled One Hour After Midnight. Both of his works saw the face of failure. In letters to his parents, he expressed a belief that “the morality of artists [has been] replaced by aesthetics.”
His photographs at the ground floor landings told me how often Hermann traveled to Italy. His attraction towards the country is quite visible through his letter to his father and sisters. But he didn’t settle there until he faced a crisis in his personal life.
He had three sons from his first marriage, but it didn’t work and his wife suffered from severe psychosis.
“Here the sun shines more intensely, the mountains are rosier: grapes, almonds, figs, and chestnuts grow and the people are good, civilized but friendly….” Hesse wrote when he arrived at Montagnola alone at an age of forty-two, looking for a place to stabilize his career and personal crisis that he was going through.
Fortunately for us and for him, this Ticino canton suited him very well. As it is here that he wrote most of his best works, Klingsors letzter Sommer, Siddhartha, Der Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead game, Narziss und Goldmund. While Steppenwolf was autobiographical and reflected his spiritual crisis, in Narziss and Goldmund, we saw his protagonist seeking the meaning of life just like him. But it was for “The Glass Bead”, the utopian novel that he got the Nobel prize.
The book was influenced by the political situation in Germany and the subsequent war which he hated. Through his work, he tries showing to the world how we should conserve humanity for a better future in the face of the present dictatorship.
This search for identity and the difficult process of discovering oneself were topics that Hesse addressed in his later novels. His stories were scattered with references to his own experiences, analyses of himself, and poetic avowals.
A shirtless Hesse with a wine bottle and an inclined hat beams at you at the first-floor hall. Probably the very hat is now showcased along with his umbrella and a leather bag. His typewriter solemnly rests on a table against the big window of the yellow room. I am tempted to touch its black and white keys and wonder about the type of intimate relationship this tool of his art must have had with Hermann. The table was glass topped and sandwiched were various letters from T.S. Elliot, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Carl Jung and other treasured friends of Hermann. A glass bookcase stands witness to all he read and wrote.
Art ran in his blood
But he wasn’t just a Novelist. In fact, he himself unraveled his hidden talent by chance when his therapist asked him to try painting. Once his fingers touched color they became an integral part of rest of his life.
” It’s wonderful to paint; it makes one happier and more patient.
And when finished, fingers are not black like after writing, but red and blue. “
It was a treat to witness his color pencils, used tubes of water-cooler and brushes inside the display table along with his original sketches and paintings. His creations not only depicted his love for nature but also the peasant life of southern Switzerland, it’s woods, caves, sunny vineyards and alluring chapels. He used to pack his little painting board, his palette, watercolor, water flask and Italian painting sheets in his rucksack, and picking his painting stool would go on little excursions around the countryside looking for a subject. His love for gardening is also evident from his paintings. And maybe when nothing outside impressed him, he painted himself.
He even presented his wife Ruth, a fairy tale Piktors, illustrating it with watercolor drawings. He later produced a number of copies of the story, and each featured a variety of brightly colored illustrations for his friends and needy people.
His photographs with the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck and Fritz Brun in the museum reminded me of his deep connection with music. We can say that music played a very important part in developing Herman’s spiritual and literary side as evident from his novels. Especially in Der Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game he uses music as a significant symbolic requisite. Even one of his last poems, “written on an April night” ends with these lines:
What you loved and what you strove for,
What you dreamed and what you lived through,
Do you know if it was joy or suffering?
G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,
Are they distinguishable to the ear?
Herman and India
Would you believe if I said that Hermann never stepped foot in India, but his book “Siddhartha” is one of his most acclaimed books? Herman’s connection with India leads to a belief that sometimes one can visit a country and its culture more vividly just through its tales and a strong belief in its philosophy. Though Herman’s India tour only saw him reach Indonesia and Ceylon and other Asian countries, his connection with the peninsula started long back. His grandfather was a famous scholar and worked in India for more than two decades as a missionary. He knew Sanskrit and his house was stuffed with Indian books, scrolls, clothes and many other Indian artifacts. His mother was born in Tellichery Kerala, India and could speak and sing in Malayalam. His father too worked as a missionary for many years and they all gifted a considerable part of Indian culture to Hesse since his childhood. This resulted in a spiritual quest towards Hinduism and Buddhism and helped him write Siddhartha, one of his best-loved works.
After my visit to the museum, I went around his apartment down the narrow lane to see what was it that he viewed daily from his window to get inspirations for his outstanding works. The Lake Lugano in all its splendor answered all my queries satisfactorily.
Walking past the speeding Ferraris, as I reached the entrance of the village Collin d’Oro, my eyes fell on an ancient Church. Passing the pathway to the church, lined with tall cypress one can reach the impressive bell tower and the church. Across the road was a quiet sun-drenched cemetery where my favorite author rested his weary soul. It is said that on the evening of August 8, the much-read German author, listened to his favorite Mozart Sonata and his third wife read to him as she did every evening. The very next morning he was found dead in his sleep.
It was a peaceful afternoon. Sitting in front of his modest gravestone I spent few minutes thinking about his life, writings, art and his invaluable insights watching the creepers and a small Buddha sitting atop. And I realized that he was a person who never gave up to the norms of society without questioning their relevance. He had the guts to say what he believed in and was unafraid of criticism. He was a true hero in the world of art.