This slim volume (110 pages in my paperback version) was originally published pseudonymously and purported to be the autobiography of a young lad; it was an instant success. At first sight it has similarities with Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, it is very much in the Bildungsroman tradition, but this is not the self-obsessed self-tortures of a man in love; Demian is a novel of ideas about those who are outsiders in society.
There is a short prologue in which the narrator tries to explain what is this autobiography will be all about. It has a sort of dedicatory preface: “All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?” (Prologue). He warns about the limitations of autobiography: “When authors write novels, they usually act as if they were God and could completely survey and comprehend some person’s history and present it as if God were telling it to Himself, totally unveiled, in its essence at all points. I can't, any more than those authors can.” (Prologue) Finally, he warns: “My story isn't pleasant, it's not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” (Prologue) Then we can start.
As a boy, the narrator Emil Sinclair recognises that there are two worlds: "the world of a warm glow, clarity and cleanliness; gentle, friendly speech, washed hands, clean clothes, and proper behaviour ... This was the world to adhere to if one's life was to be bright and pure, lovely and well-ordered ... The other world ... was altogether different, smelled different, spoke differently, made different promises and demands. In this second world ... there was a motley flow of uncanny, tempting, frightening, puzzling things, things like slaughterhouse and jail, drunks and bickering women, cows giving birth, horses collapsing, stories of burglaries, killings, suicides.” (Ch 1) Following a juvenile misdemeanour (in fact a pretended one) Sinclair falls victim to blackmail from another schoolboy; Demian rescues him from this. Demian becomes the Guide to Sinclair's Hero on a Journey, but Demian is a guide who starts by challenging conventional ideas of religion and morality. He explains that the Christian God represents "goodness, nobility, the Father, beauty and also loftiness, sentimentality - all fine! But the world is made up of other things, too. And all that is simply ascribed to the Devil, and this whole part of the world, an entire half, is swept under the table and buried in silence"; his solution is to "create some new god, who would also include the Devil within himself, one in whose presence we wouldn't have to shut our eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.” (Ch 3) This is what Sinclair has been waiting to hear and it enables him to go to boarding school where he becomes a drunkard on the point of expulsion; a classic Refusal of the Call. Later he reconnects with Demian and with other characters, such as Pistorius the organist who seeks salvation in ancient mysticism. Finally Sinclair begins his journey to the light. Demian's last visit to him is in the nature, perhaps, of a ghost.
Demian, with Siddartha and Steppenwolf, is the first of a three novels which Colin Wilson in The Outsider considers to be Hesse's exploration of the theme of the outsider. Demian has recognised Sinclair as a fellow who is marked with the ‘mark of Cain’. He explains that the story about Cain is the wrong way round, made up to explain the mark: “They said that fellows with that mark were weird, and so they were. People with courage and character always seem weird to other people.” (Ch 3)
Wilson wasn't too keen on the ending of Demian which he describes as 'airy-fairy' and I can see what he means: it lacks the raw punch of the first few chapters. But the first few chapters are bloody good.
There are some super description in which Hesse uses a comparison entirely unlike any I have heard before and yet spot on:
- “It was as if the wall clock and the table, the Bible and the mirror, the bookshelf and the pictures on the wall were saying goodbye to me.” (Ch 1)
- “He bore and behaved himself like a prince in disguise in the midst farmboys, making every effort to resemble them.” (Ch 2)
- “He didn't look at all like a schoolboy doing an assignment, but like a scholar pursuing his own research.” (Ch 2)
- “The world around me was like a clearance sale of shopworn merchandise, insipid and unappealing.” (Ch 4)
- “A new pot to cook his ideas in.” (Ch 6)
- “Scholarship ... a weary search amid the ruins of worlds gone by.” (Ch 6)
- “I stood at a street corner listening; from two taverns the ritual performed jollity of youth emerged into the night. Everywhere a sense of community, everywhere a squatting together, everywhere is shuffling off of destiny and an escape into the warm togetherness of the herd!” (Ch 7)
Great moments of truth:
- “The part of the story that took place among the wicked and the lost was by far the more appealing, and if one were free to state and admit it, it was sometimes actually a downright shame that the prodigal repented and was found again.” (Ch 1)
- “There were secrets I could much sooner share with the coarsest street boys than with my sisters.” (Ch 1)
- “It was my own business to cope with myself and find my own path, and I conducted my business badly, just as most children do who have been well brought up.” (Ch 3)
- “Very many ... for the rest of their life cling painfully to the irretrievable past, to the dream of the lost paradise [childhood], which is the worst and most murderous of all dreams.” (Ch 3)
- “Whoever wishes to be born destroy a world.” (Ch 5)
- “I like music very much, I think, because it's so unconcerned with morality.” (Ch 5)
- “I've always derived nothing but suffering from morality.” (Ch 5)
- “You certainly don't consider all the bipeds running around the street to be human beings merely because they walk upright and carry their young for nine months?” (Ch 5)
- “You shouldn't compare yourself with others; and if nature has made you a bat, you shouldn't try to turn yourself into an ostrich.” (Ch 6)
- “I didn't exist to write poetry, to preach sermons, to paint pictures; neither I know anyone else existed for that purpose. All of that merely happened to a person along the way. Everyone had only one true vocation: to find himself.” (Ch 6)
Fantastic writing from a Nobel laureate. August 2020; 110 pages